Sunday

HOW TO WRITE A GOOD FAITH-BASED DRAMA OR SKIT


I just took a bunch of kids to an LTC conference on Christian arts and communication. There, we saw a variety of arts from drama and puppetry to chorus and visual arts. While judging the drama division, I saw some strong, vibrant dramas, and some that were weaker. Many adults involved in this type of writing may be doing it without the benefit of tips or a mentor to help them through the process. So, for what it's worth, here are my suggestions from my years of training and work as a professional novelist and playwright.

TEN TIPS TO WRITE A GOOD CHRISTIAN DRAMA OR SKIT for LTC or other events:

1) Understand the difference between a drama and a sermon/lesson. Sermons and lessons are wonderful in their own right, but they do not make good drama. The closer your skit becomes to a sermon or lesson in its style and content, the less effective it will be.

2) Avoid too much direct discussion of scripture or writing a ‘teaching’ scenario such as a parent teaching children or actors portraying "a Bible class." This is usually a sign that your material is sermon or lesson-like; instead, tell a STORY with strong characters.

3) Pick a creative setting and unusual characters. Skits set in schools and churches tend to produce sermon-like material. It’s harder to write sermons set in outer space! That’s not to say that all skits must be wacky, but it’s much more interesting to set a skit at the police station or sewage plant than at church. Another overused scenario is the “radio or TV interview.” It’s really hard to make the interview style fresh and exciting. If you must pick one of the overused, everyday settings, use unusual, memorable characters, not just “an ordinary kid or teenager.”

4) Base your skit on one major problem and conflict. Conflict drives all good drama from beginning to end. Not all conflict must involve characters battling one another. Sometimes, the main conflict may be a character’s internal conflict (“should I or shouldn’t I?”). Characters don’t have to argue directly or fight, but instead they may have strikingly different goals that place them in conflict. For example, one character on stage may be desperately trying to make a new friend, while the other character on stage really has to go to the ladies’ room and has no interest in small talk! Such minor conflicts can make some of the funniest and most poignant drama. If there is no conflict but only talk and explanation, the skit will be deadly dull.

5) Help your actors by writing strong characters with intense motivations. Strong characters have strong goals. They also have quirks and overriding personality traits that make them recognizable within the space of a short scene. At the same time, you don’t want them to be so stereotypical that they are boring (such as the jock, the nerd, the vain girl).  If you do use very common types, make sure their goals make them more memorable. A jock making vague macho statements is less interesting than a jock so driven to win the state championship that he’ll take steroids or sabotage his rival teammate. The nerd is dull if he’s just a kid in a pair of black eyeglasses. He is much more appealing if his goal is to outwit the school bullies and he actually says smart or witty things about history or chemistry.

6) Use humor. Make a choice about whether your skit is all-out comedy or more serious drama (perhaps with a sprinkling of humor). Do not choose the non-existent genre: “this is a sincere and earnest skit.” Aspire higher. Your goal may be to write a skit that is moving, troubling, or hilarious, but if your goal is “a nice, earnest skit about spiritual matters” you are probably treading dangerously close to boring. Humor is the easiest way for amateur young actors to do well onstage. They feel more comfortable and they usually enjoy it. For high school performers, a serious drama may be possible, but the lead actors will need to be experienced and talented to make it work. The goal for the skit should be to get the audience to laugh loudly (not forced polite laughter) or be truly moved emotionally at some point during the skit. If neither of these things happens, it’s a sign that the skit may be ineffective, or in a word...boring. 

7. Include music/sound effects. Music and sound on a portable boombox are a simple, inexpensive way to produce a much richer theatrical effect. If your skit needs gunshots, download sound effects from an online music store. The internet has made sound design much easier. If the students are enthusiastic singers, don’t be afraid to use their abilities. If not, consider using background music to enhance mood.

8. Costumes matter: write characters that allow fun costumes. Costumes matter to the audience, and more importantly, they help inexperienced performers have more fun and loosen up onstage. Do not choose everyday clothing as your costume, or even worse, event t-shirts.  You will lose one of the most powerful tools to help your student actors enjoy their show.

9. Write a variety of big and small parts. Don’t listen to any voices telling you that everyone must have an equal part. Drama doesn’t work like this in any other setting, and there’s no reason why it should at church. Some kids simply don’t yet know how to project their voices and make themselves heard. Other young actors start out very wooden and unemotional. Allow these less experienced actors time to grow by giving them fewer lines. Try to make their small parts into especially fun and animated roles.

10. Take the assigned theme seriously and make it central through a story, not sermonizing. If your skit will appear at a venue with a required theme, make sure the theme is central and clear in the STORY of your work. This is not the same as having a bunch of characters talk about the theme at length…that is a sermon. Instead, figure out what kind of story will *show* the theme without specifically saying it out loud. Then, if one of your characters does openly state the theme, keep it to a minimum. Audiences prefer to be respected and allowed to see the theme for themselves. 

Bonus tip: Keeping all of these tips in mind can be a tall order for a first-time playwright. One good way to help yourself get started is to pick a classic story—a fairytale, a well-known movie, or a classic novel—and imitate the structure and conflict of this classic story. For example, how could “The Three Little Pigs” become a story about forgiveness? What could “Little Red Riding Hood” show us about temptation? But don’t just use famous characters to create chaos: for example, slapping Captain Kirk and Spock into a skit won’t necessarily make it good, unless the skit also has a strong central problem and conflict that ties into the theme. The most common problem with skit parodies of famous works is that the writer gets so caught up in the humor and characters that the storyline becomes unfocused and hard to follow. Keep that central problem/conflict very clear.

Happy writing, and thanks for your service!

Theme

I've been thinking a lot lately about theme.

What is it? Some say it's an entire sentence, and it can't be expressed without a sentence, such as:

Revenge leads to self-destruction.

Screenwriting guru Stanley Williams has a more complex formula for theme that he dubs "the moral premise" in his book by that title. To him, no narrative is complete without its moral premise, and the moral premise is like a theme with two parts:

Vice or undesirable quality leads to _____________________
 but virtue or desirable quality leads to ___________________.

Simple as it sounds, it does allow an author to construct highly unified themes.

I wish more genre novels emphasized theme. Many genre novels have strong plots, but the theme just doesn't come together. There's not a lot of symbol, resonance, or imagery to make the novel vibrate on a deeper level.

By contrast, in many contemporary literary novels, there's a ton of theme, and no plot to hang it on. This is a departure from many classic novels now considered 'literary', which were more balanced in plot and theme, especially before 1900.

 A novel's theme works like the moment of personal epiphany we experience when we look back on past events and suddenly spot a theme in our own life's narrative. But in order for theme to work in novels the way it works in our consciousness, there has to be some forward motion, some action to distract us from the theme while it's accumulating, and then BOOM! At the end, we get the big reveal.

How do you get theme into your work?

Monday

Why You Want Clean Galleys for Your Book

If you're familiar with the usual steps of the traditional publishing process, you know that novels go through several rounds of edits, and then they are typeset into galleys.

Galleys look like the actual pages that will appear in a bound novel. When you get the author copies of the galleys, you have your last chance to proofread your novel and make minor changes before it goes to print.

 My second novel, Sweeter than Birdsong, ended up needing a very quick turnaround in line edits (the stage right before galleys), an unusually grueling, fast turnaround for both me and my editor. As a result, the galleys were not as clean as I would have liked. There were some errors, and there were a number of stylistic things that needed to be cleaned up. This was only natural because of the time pressure, and I managed to get everything shipshape for publication by some judicious work with the galleys (and with the help of my excellent copy editor and proofreaders).

Still, in an ideal situation, I would like to produce much cleaner galleys, and I did that for my third novel, Lovelier than Daylight.

Why does it matter? Because galleys turn into what are called the ARCs, or Advance Reader Copies.

I was chagrined to realize that the readers for my second novel's blog tour had received ARCs, because I did not want my dear readers to read the flawed copies made from my galleys. I wanted them to read the real thing, the cleaned up version! But that's the way it often works in publishing. Reviews, both formal and informal, require advance copies.

So, when it's your turn, keep in mind that your galleys will go to Publishers Weekly. They will go to Library Journal and RT Book Reviews and every other advance reviewer.

My advice: get your manuscript as close to perfect as you can during line edits. Sometimes, circumstances will really make that close to impossible, as with our editing time frame for Sweeter than Birdsong. But when you have the time, go over your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb during line edits! Get rid of every word repetition, every slightly cloudy phrasing, every metaphor that has even a *whisper* of overwriting about it.

You'll be glad you did when you find out a hundred reviewers are reading your galleys. :-)


Sunday

Book Hoarders, Unite!

Tonight, I am packing. Packing books, and more books, and more books.

Before my last interstate move, I was ruthless about weeding books from my collection. I gave away everything that I would be able to find at a public library, including most of my classic works of literature. I've never missed them. As long as I can get them at a library, all is good.

Here's my problem with this move: I still have the books I couldn't stand to give up in my last move: the landmark scholarly works I used for my dissertation that I can't get outside of a university library. In addition to these, I have a ton of books that I acquired for my historical novel research. These books also cannot be found in most libraries: the only way you get them outside of academia is to buy them. There's no way I'm letting them go.

I own a number of books about faith, and living out one's faith in various ways. These need to stay in my home as references. Then there are the gargantuan works like my beautiful, deluxe edition of the Odyssey, my Collected Works of Shakespeare, or my excellent book of New York Times Front Pages collected from over one hundred years, a phenomenally good gift from my sister-in-law Laura. Each of these books probably weighs five to ten pounds!

So here I am in the age of the e-book, about to move hundreds of pounds of paper books to my new home.

And I am not sorry. :-)

Book hoarders, unite!



Monday

Going Home



My family and I will be making an interstate move soon.

We're moving much closer to our extended family--within a day's drive of everyone. We'll be able to see our aging parents more frequently, and my daughter will be able to see her beloved cousins too. I won't say specifically where we're moving for privacy reasons, but I want to talk about the internal journey that accompanies our move.

This is a turbulent time, emotionally, but in the best way ever!

Only after this move was finalized did I realize that we've been living in limbo for over ten years, spending  a couple of years in Atlanta,  four years in Ohio, then five years here in the southwest..

Don't get me wrong: we have loved our time in the southwest, where we've made many close friendships that will not end just because we move.

But here's the huge difference about this move: in 2012, we are going somewhere to STAY.

When we moved here, we never knew if we would stay in the southwest. My husband took a job opportunity, and we were happy to come explore a sunny, warm climate. Whether we would stay was always an open question, because we love it here, but our family is very far away.

But for our upcoming move, we know that we're about to  put down roots, God willing, for a long time, Maybe decades. Maybe the rest of our lives. Having grown up in an Air Force family, I've never lived anywhere longer than five years in my whole life.

Tomorrow, we'll close on our new house. It's beautiful. We'll have land and horses. I've never owned my own horse, though I've worked with many other people's horses over the course of my life, and learned a fair amount in several equestrian disciplines--plus a lot about horse care. Getting our own horses is the fulfillment of a lifetime dream.

Our life already feels different, because we're going to a home, not another way station. We're energized, making long-term plans. We haven't made long-term plans like this for our whole marriage. It's exciting--it feels great. It's funny to think this is how many other people have lived for a long time, with roots, community ideals, networks of local friends made over decades. Now, we're going to be able to really settle into our community without wondering if we're going to make another move in five years.

I'll miss our friends here very much. For the past few weeks, I've been emotionally-stirred whenever I sit in church on Sundays. It has been the only time when I can sit still and reflect, and so I find myself processing the move, the ups and downs of our time here, the sadness of leaving. (I am paying some attention to what's going on in church. :-) It's just that everything in the worship taps into spiritual issues related to our current situation.)

I've been a stranger in a strange land all my life. This move to a permanent home feels a little bit like heaven.





Hollywood Pitches for Your Novels

I'm back! I feel as if I've been underground for a year, but really it was only three weeks while I worked on the rewrites for Lovelier than Daylight.

I'm thrilled to be almost finished with this contract! Just tweaking and line edits left.

So, I had the fun realization tonight, now that the novel is close to its final form, that I KNOW the Hollywood pitch for it.

Here are the Hollywood pitches for my previous two novels:



Fairer than Morning -

Nicholas Nickelby meets Uncle Tom's Cabin











Sweeter than Birdsong -

Amazing Grace meets The King's Speech








And...drum roll...here's the pitch for Lovelier than Daylight -





Much Ado About Nothing meets Our Town...with bombs.

:-)


The Deadline Approacheth

It's that time again: the edits for Lovelier than Daylight are due soon, and that's why I have been pretty quiet for the last couple of weeks. The suggestions from my editors are great, as usual, and will enrich the story.

I really appreciate your visits here and your comments--I always enjoy reading them and you are all in my thoughts more than you may realize. Please bear with me once more--I'll be back soon. :-)