I’ve often longed to be like one of those great 19th century novelists who wrote steadily, no matter where or when, and published unaltered the first words they inked on the page. Dickens, Eliot, Trollope – those imaginative English storytellers of the Victorian age – never seemed to run out of plot or characters, and wrote absorbingly, constantly, fluidly of the human condition. Dozens and dozens of novels. If they’d turned their hands to plays, they probably would have poured out similar gold-standard works.
But I’m not like them. Not even remotely. And neither are most of us. At least, not that playwrights boast of. Admitting to easy-peasy may not be in fashion, but expounding on how vital rewriting is to the process definitely is. I did a search of playwrights’ advice on rewriting and found reams of testaments to rewriting, and rewriting again. You can too – just search for “playwrights rewrite.”
I’m not going to write more advice – me, a new playwright? The nerve! – but rather describe what helps tip me into the rewrite and what keeps me going. And if you send us what works for you, we’ll collect and publish them, too.
I’ve written, and rewritten five evening-length plays in the last five years; I self-produced two of them. I work a day job full-time, so I write around the margins of my paying work, and guard my writing time fiercely. I, for reasons incomprehensible to playwrights who find it easy, despise the submission process, and avoid it. If I submitted more, I might get some of my plays produced by others. Or not. I figure it’s easier and more rewarding to self-produce than submit. That’s how much I loathe submissions. The pain of production – there is so much that is tedious about it – is preferable to the submission process.
All that relates to rewriting like this: even though I’m not yet submitting my work, I rewrite and rewrite FOR MYSELF. After I have at least what I consider half or so of a first draft, I submit it to my playwright group – there are four of us – and get their feedback. We meet once a month to provide feedback on each others’ work, one playwright per month. Then I rewrite the first half. I put together a closed reading with good actors, and invite other playwrights to comment, on this first half. I need this first reading to know where the play is going next, and what I want to change and re-direct. I write a complete draft after this first closed reading, and submit it again to my writing group. After they comment, I re-write a second complete draft, and present a staged reading, inviting the public to comment; I have the best actors and directors I can find for this open staged reading. And then of course, re-write! Then I can start submitting and/or plan for a self-production.
A playwright friend tells me re-writing, for him, destroys his original creative impulse. I don’t see it like that, for myself. I think of my first drafts as a mostly unformed ball of clay that I’m sculpting into a living, breathing, ever more true distillation to that initial impulse.