The Great, the Good, and the Ugly:
Who's Driving this Horse, Anyway?
Once, I asked a self-published author just why the hell she plunked an ungodly amount of change down at a vanity press to print her novel. Any self-respecting writer, I explained, knows to submit to "traditional" publishers—meaning places where you compete for a limited number of publishing slots, where the possibility exists to be rejected, and where you most certainly do not pay money to anyone. The publishing world rightly looks down its collective nose at self-pub'd authors because they buy the privilege instead of earning it.
The answer I received surprised me.
"It's about control," she said. "I don't want to deal with somebody else telling me how to write my book. And I don't want to rely on somebody else to publish the book on time—or even to promote it or to tell me how to promote it. I like holding all the strings."
I harrumphed at her naiveté and went on with my life.
But recently, I've been involved with three projects that have made me wish I were holding all the strings. Other people's lack of perfection or their inability to telepathically see things exactly as I do have driven me up the wall. So I've revised my thinking a bit.
The Great: Drood
It was the year 1870, and Charles Dickens was halfway through the Greatest Mystery Novel of Our Time, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, being published in monthly installments by Chapman & Hall. Just as the story was getting good, he committed the one unpardonable act of his noble career: he died.
It was up to Rupert Holmes a century later to complete the story in a satisfactory manner. Holmes wrote a Broadway musical that won five Tony awards, Drood, in which the audience votes on the ending each night. Earlier this year, a community college near me decided to reprise the musical with a cast of local theater veterans and one complete newbie named Matthew Warner. Appropriately, I assayed the role of Phillip Bax, who in turn assayed the role of Bazzard, both them authors with theatrical aspirations. "Never the luck, never the lead—but never you mind, they say," I sang during my solo, lamenting my status as a secondary actor. My wife, Deena, was recruited for set realization and sound effects.
We started rehearsals only two months before the performances. ("Only," I say, as experienced actors roll their eyes.) And, we only had two rehearsals in that time when the entire cast showed up. People had other commitments like jobs and choir rehearsals, and—in my case—a writing convention and a pre-planned vacation to Florida.
With less than a week to opening night, people just weren't learning their lines. One of the principals kept pronouncing "supercilious" as "super-snitious." One woman nearly broke her leg on a set piece, and another was almost killed by a falling stage light. (I didn't help matters by immediately screaming, "Cursed! This production is cursed!" and, "It's the Phantom! The Phantom of the Opera!") The director, clutching his chest every night and mopping sweat from his brow, told the press that the cast anticipated the opening night not with excitement but with terror.
The hardest thing for me to accept was that I wasn't in control. I wasn't the director, and even if I were, I couldn't have made people do their jobs. With our collective breaths held, we opened the doors to the public.
And it was … wonderful. Everything came together. Everyone knew their songs and remembered their lines. "Super-snitious" became "supercilious." And while I wasn't voted the murderer on any of the nights, I was voted the detective on two of them, and I sang out my joy of taking center stage.
The Good: How the Martians Stole Christmas
At the same time Drood shifted into high gear, the Wayne Theater Alliance prepared to perform my radio serial, How the Martians Stole Christmas. It would be performed before a live audience at a monthly variety show, the River City Radio Hour, and conclude in December. Because I'd been a voice actor in previous radio plays, I was asked to act in my own play. Deena again handled sound effects.
Sure, no pressure there: writer, actor, wife doing sound effects, and oh yeah, the Drood cast would also be there on opening night to promote the musical's debut the following week. And I wanted more control over things?
At home, Deena and I ransacked the house and eBay for objects to make sound effects. Pre-recorded tracks on an iPod would just be boring, after all. We came up with things like an electric pencil sharpener, socket wrench, bicycle pump, and boatswain's whistle. We ran through the script—and there I encountered my first control issues, telling Deena she wasn't hammering the table in the right way during the opening scene and how to use the whistle. Rightly, she got a little miffed at me. She reminded me that this was a collaboration, not the Matt Warner show.
A collaboration? My radio play? But I wrote it, and … and …
And then, when we finally rehearsed with the other actors, not all of them showed up, and those who did weren't interpreting the lines the way I heard them in my head when I wrote them. The director assured me he would get together with the missing actors that week and that everything would be fine.
So, when the play's first chapter was performed, no, it wasn't exactly as I had imagined or hoped, but it was damned close. The audience laughed in the right spots, the actors had a good time, and people have told me they're looking forward to the following chapters.
Who woulda thunk? In the meantime, I'm trying to sleep through the night without the help of pharmaceuticals.
The Ugly: The Good Parts
Contrast the above experiences to the aborted filming of "The Good Parts" during the past year. As in the radio play, I was granted a level of access to the production that most writers don't enjoy. "The Good Parts" was originally my short story, but I also wrote the screenplay, and it was generally left unchanged by the movie director. I also retained some control by being a co-producer, being present at nearly all production meetings, casting calls, and scouting trips to set locations.
But where things fell apart—and were not put together again by others—lay in the fact that I wasn't in control. The director was a nice guy most of the time, but he proved to be administratively inept all of the time. Take for example a screen test for the principal actors, scheduled for one Sunday morning at 11 a.m. at my house. When the male lead requested that we finish by 1 p.m., the director misinterpreted that as a need to reschedule to 1 p.m., and he communicated the change to the female lead. The error was caught too late, and everyone except the female lead showed up at 11 a.m. The director, having neglected to bring the actress' s phone number, couldn't call her. So we sat on my deck for two hours, drinking beer and waiting for her to show up, which she never did.
A couple months went by in which the director didn't reschedule the screen test or do much of anything else. My queries about what was happening were answered with, "You're in the Drood show," whatever that was supposed to mean. Finally, he told me he had decided to "move on to something different."
What I've Learned
So, obviously, control is a double-edge sword in my world.
On the one hand, I could self-publish and direct everything I ever do. Things might not go perfectly, but they would at least proceed competently. The old saying, "If you want something done right, do it yourself," holds true. Except there's less prestige in doing it all yourself. It shows you don't play well with others and are inclined to take the cop-out way over hurdles, such as in using your wallet instead of your talent when pursuing publication.
On the other hand are those processes requiring some degree of collaboration. They're often the greatest things in the world, and achieving them are monumental tasks of commitment, diplomacy, and talent. Your collaborators usually know this and will work as hard you do. If you have faith in them, your greatest fears about the project often won't pan out. … But sometimes, oh yes, sometimes, the greatest fears do come to pass, and it's at those times I've regretted allowing someone else into my sandbox.
I'm not sure which way is the best anymore. Maybe the act of control in a writer's world is more of a spectrum of choices rather than a fork in the road. I only hope as I go forward that I have the wisdom to control what I should, faith in whom I should, and that I not die of a heart attack in the meantime.
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