11×11 – One Down

The first month of my 11×11 project has come to an end and I have done one play. Sort of. The rules I laid out put the page target at 30, but I finished at 26. Apart from a two page prelude, the play is a single continuous scene without entrances or exits. Two characters having a conversation.

So what did I learn? Firstly, finishing is the most important thing and how that may be defined is a not hard and fast. 30 pages is a good goal, but a piece that’s shorter but with a continuous spine and a real ending is also good. Secondly, to be careful of excuses. The one above makes sense but other excuses I made to not write were lame self-sabotage. Among them:

  • I can make up the page count tomorrow (no, you won’t)
  • I don’t have an idea what to do next (not writing is the opposite of solving this)
  • I’d rather answer this email (that’s a damn lie)
  • OK, but I have to answer this email (you know you don’t really)
  • I’ll write better after a power nap (you won’t get back up)
  • What’s happening on Facebook/Twitter/News24 comments section? (What is wrong with you?!)

And Finally, I confirmed it’s possible. For me. (So probably for you too)

The result of January’s labour is Every Beautiful Thing, promised to Briony Horwitz last year and finally delivered. It’s an emotional drama and comes from the same place as A Girl Called Owl – a spiritual sequel. To keep the 11×11 challenge interesting I’m going to pick very different projects each month, so February’s play is going to be The Underground Library. This is more in the Get Kraken! mould, multiple scenes and locations, an action adventure aimed at teenagers. Conveniently there’s an SAfm radio play competition and the submission deadline is the end of the month. Whenever possible I’m going to try incorporate opportunities like this into the challenge (because I like money).

11 x 11

There’s a pleasure in symmetry, a pleasure in pattern. Rituals and habits are reassuring. Looking at 11 x 11 with its palindrome promise, makes me think it doesn’t stand for anything out of the ordinary. It can’t represent anything challenging or impossible. Can it?

As a matter of fact it can. 11 x 11 is a project I’m embarking on, a gauntlet I’m throwing down against my common sense. It stands for something a bit ridiculous in its audacity: a promise to write eleven plays in eleven months. One play every month from January to November.

This year I’m not producing any shows. I’ve produced eight shows in the last five years (four of which I wrote) and it is time for a break – time to rethink my strategy. What better way to do that than to rewire how I think about writing? If you’re like me you’ve got a folder of ideas and bits of scenes lying around, maybe a couple of promises to write the script of an idea that your table of drunk friends came up with. If you’re like me you’ve got the material, you just sat on it.

11 x 11 is about quantity, not quality. None of these plays needs to ever be produced. The goal is not the stack of pages but the experience and the practice. What does it take to be prolific? How will my process change? What will I learn from this?

The rules are simple. I have to finish a play by the end of every month. It should be about an hour (or more) so if it’s a one hander then over 20 pages, and if it’s dialogue over 30 pages. So I’ll be writing between 220 and 350 pages.

Best of all? I’ve already started and have 8 pages to go to meet my target by the 31st. This is possible and I am going to do it.

What Makes a Good Story

These are points I put down, observations about the fiction I find the most compelling. When I analyse my work, I look for these and try to make sure that what I want out of a story is what I put in to my own.

  • Interesting characters placed in situations that test their limitations and weaknesses
  • A coherent and expansive world
  • High stakes for the protagonist
  • Diverse and consistent manners of speech
  • Characters undergoing change or development
  • Pacing that balances action and contemplation, advancement and expansion, humor and seriousness
  • Solid symbolic underpinning
  • The setting is integral to the plot
  • Contrasting points of view
  • Plot is edited on the principles of similarity and contrast
  • An ending that is surprising but inevitable
  • The parts tie into the whole
  • The forces of antagonism are deeper than the action so that the outcome affects the principles of life (the classic irresistible force meeting the immovable object)
  • Clarity of action and idea
  • The thesis and anti-thesis are both compellingly explored

Practice. Practice some more.

The difficult should become habitual, the habitual, easy, the easy, beautiful.

–          S. M. Volonski quoted in Stanislavski’s Building a Character

 The path to mastery is one of practice. As a kid I had this hope that I’d try something for the first time, pick up a javelin or a puppet or something, and I’d be great. I’d find that thing that would mean I was special. I still harbor that fantasy sometimes. It’s a common hope and it sells a million lottery tickets every day.

Whether I’m kneeling on the mat at aikido, trying to discern the movements of the sensei’s hands and feet or trying to explain story mechanics to twenty eighteen year olds, I am hoping that an epiphany will happen. That this time it will be easy, maybe even beautiful. And then I realize that at least this has stopped being difficult. When you’re climbing a mountain it’s important to stop half way up and enjoy the view before you carry on.