Recently I wrote a blog about a theater piece of mine called Yes Sir . The plot upon which the play was based incorporated a chance meeting I had with a woman in a bar in Laredo, Texas. When I wrote the play, I lifted most of the actual facts of her life and included them into the structure of the work. The stage play which resulted was called Maggie’s Way. I eventually changed characters around but the woman’s basic story remained the same.
As writers, we are lucky if life presents us with a basic plot intact. In the case of the preceding play, this was the case. I merely took life down in dictation. Of course one changes a few things but essentially the entire action of the play from Act I to Act III would be what one might call “dictation of life.” This does not just pertain to stage plays but to novels and screenplays.
I have been contacted quite a bit by aspiring writers for advice on how to get a project going—the latest request being just last week. I am always glad to help people and I will suggest certain things to them. For the most part, amateur writers (those who have yet to be paid for their work) tend to want to play it safe. They are great copiers. I, as I outlined in paragraph one above, was simply copying from life itself. However, the majority of budding writers I’ve communicated with want to write about the life of some public figure or copy some TV show or other work that has already made its mark.
To write about a public figure, unless you’re going to dig up a lot of heretofore unknown gossip, is going to be the blahs. This person’s life is already known and your retelling the story doesn’t present much fresh material.
The largest number of beginning writers try to imitate some already proven work—a gangster/cop show, a hospital situation , “Sex and the City” type stuff—even “Downton Abbey.” The most recent cry for help came from a young lady trying her version of a way-overbaked Italian crime family.
Many aspiring writers have not lived enough to have the necessary original adventures to translate into a work. They are busy recycling instead of creating new inroads. However, if you are lucky enough to have experienced some original adventures, your choice boils down to choosing from your exploits. Some are like I mentioned for my play Maggie’s Way—basically the entire plot is there intact. Those instances are rather rare. Usually your escapades point you in the direction of “What if….?” This means life presents you with a situation or set up but it’s up to you and your imagination to fill in the rest. Even so, you can turn a set up into a gold mine for yourself.
An example of “What if…?” for me was with my play THE APOLLO EXPERIMENT. After I finished my Master’s Degree at the University of Madrid, I applied to and was accepted as a professor of Spanish at New York State University, Plattsburg. After returning from Madrid, I moved to Plattsburg, a small town in northern New York State, which is 29 miles south of the Canadian border. The area was rather isolated and rental property was rare and very expensive due to its being a university town. I ended up having to rent a farm house outside in the country. This was nice in some aspects but very isolated. The people who rented me the place had a woman named Thelma to come and clean the place weekly. The first time she came, I was busy unpacking and she helped me take some of my things upstairs. She was a rather gruff woman and quite formidable.
After being there a while, she looked out the window, then quickly went to the front door and yelled, “Robert, you leave them cats alone.”
She turned around and said as she lit a cigarette, “He’d just as soon wring their necks off as look at them.”
I asked, “Who’s Robert?”
She answered, “My boy Robert. He ain’t right if you know what I mean.”
I took a look out and there was a Neanderthal looking young man in his twenties. He would have been handsome except his face and body was scared and twisted. Thelma saw that I was shocked.
“His father collected used bottles and glass containers. One night while crossing Farrell Bridge south of town, he was carrying Robert and a bag of bottles on his shoulder. He was drunk and fell off the bridge. Roberts was all cut up and hit his head on a rock and ain’t been right since.”
I took another look at Robert. Every so often she would yell out at him. He would cower and was totally subdued.
Later I got to thinking about Robert and her and myself, the college professor who had just moved in. I came up with a very good “What if……?” situation based on Thelma and Robert. What if the professor living there was a psychology professor rather than an instructor of Spanish? What if he used Robert as a guinea pig and miraculously cured him and brought him back to normalcy? I began writing my play THE APOLLO EXPERIMENT based on Robert and Thelma. I let my imagination fill in the missing spots. Later via The Paris English Theatre, my play had its premiere production and was quite successful.
The thing is to check out experiences you have had and add a “What if….?” to them and see if you cannot come up with an intriguing play, book or screenplay.
I recently read where Lisa Genova, an American Neuroscientist at Harvard, wrote a book about a Harvard professor who suffered from early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The book was named STILL ALICE. This was for sure a “What if….?” plot based on some experience she had had. She sent the book to agents to try and get some interest but none was forthcoming. They all told her that the material was too depressing and people wouldn’t be interested. After being turned down over and over, she self-published the book in 2007. She worked tirelessly, getting her novel out to anyone who would read it. She finally got an agent who quickly sold it for six figures to Simon & Schuster publishers. They republished the book and before long it was on the New York Times Best Seller List. It was ultimately made into a film named STILL ALICE and the leading actress, Julianne Moore, won the Oscar this year for Best Actress.
If you want to write and be unique, the first thing you must do is add some adventure to your life. Then you translate it to your writing project either as a basic plot or as a “What if…..?” Remember, don’t recycle. Get out there and live life and then write about it.