Killing Jokes

Casino Confidential has gone up, and from what I’m hearing, it was very well-received by an audience of about 300 people at the Worcester Jewish Community Center.

I’m somewhat sorry I couldn’t be there myself, because it’s always thrilling to see something I wrote on its feet before an audience, but it’s probably a good thing I wasn’t around, because I’m also the type who will sit there the whole time thinking, “That’s not how I wrote that line!”

I know, you just can’t make me happy.

Except I am happy with this script. There were definitely challenges, to put it kindly, because the clients (the WJCC) were what you would call “hands on” (again, to put it mildly) and so a lot of elements were thrown in as concessions to them — elements I would have deleted in a heartbeat, but had to be there, so it was my job to make the best of them.

Click on the link above to read scene two of the script, and if anyone out there is interested in having this very same show performed for them, perhaps as a fundraiser, then give Stephen and Alena at Autumn Tree Productions a shout, because they now own the rights to the script. Yes, that’s how full-service I am; not only will I write for you, if you pay me to buy the rights to the finished product, I’ll sign ’em over.

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.

Seasonal Effective Disorder

As a rule, I hate winter. I hate the bitter cold, the driving winds, the ten thousand inches of snow that has been getting dumped on Massachusetts over the past several winters. Nothing much to love about it.

What I do like: the excuse to light a fire in the fireplace in the bedroom (yes, I have one, be jealous) and crawl into a bed piled high with blankets and pets and be cuddly with my wife; and my insane writing output.

Winter is very much the off-season for renaissance faires in this area, so my creative energy is not getting siphoned off in other directions. Couple that with ample reasons to stay indoors and I become a crazed writing machine.

It seems I’ve entered that mode prematurely. As noted previously, the first draft of my young adult novel project (Action Figures) came together inside of a month, and right now I’m diving into my work-for-hire murder mystery job. The show is set at a spy convention, so it’s a chance to have fun with some of the hoary old tropes of the spy genre.

Both projects have reinforced in my mind some quirks of my personal process. With Action Figures, I was reminded why I am such a hardass about seeking out solid constructive criticism. One of my test-readers, the whip-smart and highly observant Julie T., gave me some excellent feedback and made some points about the behavior of teenagers I would never have twigged to myself (what with me being several years removed from my adolescence).

With the murder mystery, I became very aware of how “organic” my process is. I say “organic” because “disorganized” or “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants” makes me sound like I have no idea what I’m doing.

Since this is a work-for-hire gig, I was asked to prepare a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown of the story — something I never do for my own work, but here it was necessary so my employer had something to show his clients (all the more important since, I learned, the clients in question had no idea how a murder mystery dinner was supposed to work).

While it helped me organize some major plot points and gave me a road map for the scripts, I feel it’s also fencing me in a little since I’m somewhat obligated to follow the path I’ve laid down. There’s not as much room for spontaneity, and I feel like I do my best work when I have enough of a game plan to keep me on-track getting from point A to point B, but not so much of one that I can’t follow my instincts. Many is the time I’ve typed a line of dialog that sparks my imagination and sends the story in an exciting and totally unanticipated direction, and I’m at my creative best when I surprise myself. It keeps my creative engine firing.

That can’t happen much this time, and I worry that the end product will feel too stiff and I don’t know how to apply to writing a lesson I learned as a stage combatant. When learning a fight, you start off just trying to get the moves down in your muscle memory. Then you get to the point where you remember the moves fine and can perform the fight competently, but you’re stuck in a static rhythm in delivering the cuts and parries and have to “sloppy it up,” as one of my regular fight directors likes to say. Those nice, precise, well-timed moves have to be broken up a bit, the rhythm disrupted, the execution made to look more natural and less rehearsed.

So yeah, that’s what I might need to do in subsequent drafts if it’s looking like the script is just too polished and clean, but I’ve yet to figure out how to retroactively insert a natural, organic feel to my writing. I think with me, once it’s been cleaned up, there’s no going back to mess it up a little.

Nothing For Money

My productivity is about to drop off quite a bit for the next month, but for a good reason: the Connecticut Renaissance Faire opens this weekend, and I’ll be with my wife at the Storied Threads tent…when I’m not wandering around playing paparazzo.

This year’s faire is going with an unscripted, interaction-heavy approach this year, so my usual writing duties are very light; all I’ve had to do is work up is Mandrake’s Mystery, an interactive game patrons can play throughout the faire day. The concept is simple: patrons seek out performers and merchants sporting a numbered ribbon and hit them up for a clue (they often have to earn it by doing something for the clue-holder…this is often simultaneously a fun and sadistic exercise).

The game is very like “Clue” in that the players eliminate possible suspects, victims, items, and locations until they figure out who stole what from whom where. They get to go up on the stage during final revels and get knighted by the king for solving the mystery, which is totally new each weekend.

Writing this up took up my Friday afternoon, and as much as I wanted to go back to my YA novel (which is coming along splendidly, FYI), I first have to get some stuff done on the murder mystery project I’ve been hired to do for Stephen of Autumn Tree Productions (who, by the way, will be at the German encampment at CTRF).

Both of these are enjoyable projects in their way, but perhaps more importantly, they pay cash money. It’s nice to know that I’m at a point in my career where people are not just asking me to write stuff for them, they are offering to pay me for it.

When I started out on my writing career path, I did a lot more work for free. Yes, I was spending my valuable time for someone else’s benefit, but I was at a point where I needed experience and exposure as much as I needed money — if not more so. It was mostly small stuff like audition pieces for actor friends, content for faire newsletters, text for friends’ websites — the sort of work that usually took me an hour or so to crank out and was probably not worth that much even if I had been in a position to ask for payment.

I don’t know when I made the transition to writing mercenary, but I know that it was a significant decision to decide that my time was no longer free; that was me sloughing off that last of my amateur/aspiring writer status and moving into the professional category.

I think this is one of those career transition points that does not have a formula attached to it; there’s nothing out there (that I know of) that tells you exactly how many articles or scripts or copy you can write for free before you have to start asking for payment.

But that’s not a concern for me any longer. No, my big unanswerable question is how much can I rightfully charge for my efforts? I’ve read several articles with suggested rates and formulas for determining your own rates, but there does not seem to be any hard-and-fast industry standard for freelancer pay, so I’m left to field offers from potential employers and decide, based on nothing but my own gut, if it’s a good paycheck.

I don’t much care for this system, but the alternative is throwing out requested/suggested pay rates based on nothing that could wind up pricing me out of work. If anyone knows of a really good, solid, tested, reasonable method for determining freelance rates, feel free to pass it along.

How to Plot a Murder

My current project is a bit of work for hire creating a script for a murder mystery dinner theater event. I got the call last month from my friend Stephen (of Autumn Tree Productions, plug plug), who was also the gent who brought me onto the Connecticut Renaissance Faire writing staff back in 1996. His company was hired to produce the show and he tapped me for a script.

Murder mystery shows go together easily, so they’re great freelance projects — and anyone out there who might dismiss writing dinner theater shows, well, if your career is so far along that you can turn your nose up as such jobs, bully for you. Me, I need the work. Plus, they’re fun to write and allow me to stretch my writing muscles in some different directions (always a good thing, for any writer).

Out of necessity they need to be broad and a simple, since the idea is for the audience to follow the clues and solve the mystery themselves — something you can’t do with the vast majority of TV procedurals, since that last telling clue is always revealed right before the good guys swoop in to make the arrest and have the traditional infodump scene. A layered, complex story is not what’s needed here; get too twisty-turny and you lose the audience. Motivations and clues have to be fairly obvious, and each innocent suspect needs to have a clear alibi that rules them out as the killer.

Example: in the as-yet unproduced WWII-era A Star-Spangled Murder, set in a theater, the victim is killed when someone drops a sandbag from the rafters onto his head. Throughout the show, characters refer to the difficulties in navigating the rafters, and one of the suspects is constantly tripping over her own feet; she’s ruled out as a suspect because she’s too clumsy to successfully climb the rafters. In a more serious murder mystery, the clumsiness could turn out to be a ruse by the character to throw the detective off, but adding such layers to an audience-participation show is unnecessary and potentially frustrating for the audience. This is a game of Clue, not Agatha Christie.

And yes, if you’re wondering, it IS easier to decide who the killer is first and then work backwards to plant the clues and alibis.

This one will be a departure from past murder mysteries I’ve written (such as the aforementioned script and Murder Most Medieval) because of the more integrated audience participation element. Past scripts have always provided opportunities for the actors to bring the audience in on a limited basis, but the clients for this project (a spy-themed outing) wants certain guests to be part of the cast proper. The challenge here is the fact these guest-actors won’t be available for rehearsals.

My simple, if inelegant way around this is to give them few lines, and provide those lines to them on printed cue sheets that they will read from their seats. It might take the rest of the audience out of the setting a bit, but unless they take the time to learn their lines ahead of time and make themselves available for enough rehearsals to learn blocking (their positions and movements on the stage, for those not savvy with theatrical terminology), that’s the way it has to be.

Another new element I’m adding is a host character, someone who will act as the liaison between the characters and the audience. His job will be to introduce all the guests to the concept, explain how they can participate, and if necessary, act as a director-in-the-field to prompt the “guest stars” on their lines (though I’m hoping some extremely obvious cue lines will eliminate the possibility of missed cues and dropped lines).

Today I’ll work up the outline and see where Stephen wants to go with the plot and characters. Once it’s all done and the show has gone up, I’ll post a sample scene for everyone to check out.