Lessons learnt from an old unfinished play

FYI: The Mikhaila of this play is “the real Mikhaila” to whose memory I dedicated You Cannot Kill a Swan.

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I began this embarrassing unfinished play the day before my 16th birthday, and worked on it until the last day of 1995. I knew I still had it, but I hadn’t looked at it in years. Am I ever embarrassed I typed this up and shared it with my Creative Writing Club. My mother was gobsmacked when I told her this, since that meant I showed it to the university student in charge of the group. She refused to believe my friend was being honest when she’d said she really liked it. My mother was also beyond horrified by the title, and called it “this horrible play” to my father. Based just on the title, not by looking at the actual content. As an adult, I admit “Forever Thirteen” would’ve been a more appropriate title, but I was a high school sophomore. Not exactly an age known for producing quality literature. Shaming and mocking a teenager’s writing isn’t constructive criticism.

I vomited forth about 20 handwritten pages of this bilge, which strikes my adult self as a huge exercise in mental masturbation. Seriously, the only good thing that came out of this unfinished hot mess was the germ of the idea which became my alternative history about the rule of Tsar Aleksey II. Anyway, here are some lessons to be learnt from this unfinished project, which can be applied beyond just this particular example:

1. Never make your characters indistinguishable. With the comparative example of Aleksey (mostly called Alexis in this play), who actually shows glimmers of individuality and personality, all these characters sound exactly alike. Your characters should be more than just names on a page, speaking lines and performing actions.

2. Never make your characters ciphers. How convenient they all pretty much think exactly like I did at that age, right down to the same type of language I used! This goes along with #1. And of course, they all sycophantically agreed with everything my character said in this play, or quickly came over to my ideas.

3. Purple prose is a no-no, as is special snowflake language. I was that stereotypical self-important, literary-minded teen who thought she was so special, different, genius, deeper than her silly, superficial peers. I certainly had interests the typical teen didn’t share (such as Russian history), but that didn’t mean I was better than other teens. And all this self-absorbed self-importance came spilling out in excessive purple prose and special snowflake language. Save the idiosyncratic, flowery, unique-to-you language for journal entries and bad poetry no one else will ever see.

4. Normal, natural dialogue is vital. My characters didn’t speak like normal people. A lot of the dialogue in this play was backstory, infodump, “As you know, Bob,” cluttery chat, serving absolutely no purpose. I was also big on long, uninterrupted monologues. But that’s what happens when you predominantly have an intellectual, interior life of the mind instead of spending most of your time with peers.

5. There really wasn’t any special reason this needed to be a play. This was the last time I ever tried to write a play. It just wasn’t my forte. I see absolutely no reason why this same exact story couldn’t have been told in normal prose.

6. A story consisting mostly of talking heads is boring and pointless. There’s no plot to this hot mess. The three 13-year-olds take turns, in three of the acts, talking about how they died, and the periods leading up to their murders. In Mikhaila’s act, we go back to Leningrad, 1933, and some old guy named Dima gets all excited when he sees the Tsesarevich. Aleksey has a coronation ceremony in his act. Some neighbor is suspicious about the ghostly activity, and we spook her. Everything else that happens is pretty much the characters discussing ideas, validating my stupid conspiracy theories about certain things, and pontificating about history and politics. In other words, no action. Even a deliberately slower-paced, character-based story that’s more episodic and about growth and change over time needs to be hung on some kind of arc, with a structure propelling it along to make the reader care.

7. Making yourself a character is a pretty bad, egotistical idea.

8. Have the story threads have something to do with one another. This play is a bunch of half-baked ideas, at best only loosely relating and at worst having no connection.

9. Know the history you’re writing about. I was still about a year away from starting to learn just why the Russian Revolution happened, why the Tsar became so hated, and how only a very small minority wanted a restoration of the monarchy.

10. Topical references can quickly date a contemporary. Except for the time travel scene, the play is set over one night in December 1995, contemporary to my creation. I wanted to facepalm when I saw my character referencing the racially-based reaction to the O.J. Simpson verdict, only two months in the past.

11. Well-meaning ideas don’t necessarily translate into good writing. I wanted these three children frozen at 13 years old to tell their stories and live again for one night. So? You have to translate that into a worthwhile story with substance, plot, meaning, a hook. It was Divine Providence that my best-developed character led me towards the only salvageable idea in this hot mess. I can’t rationally explain the soul connection I’ve always felt to this dear boy who left this world 61 years before I was born.

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6 comments on “Lessons learnt from an old unfinished play

  1. jamiewauthor says:

    Reblogged this on Florida Writers Conference Blog and commented:
    Good morning, everyone! I hope the first full week of 2015 treated you all well! I thought I would share this one today because it’s got some great points about storytelling. Plus, how many of us have some old WIPs like this lying around? lol. As this author points out, though, these old works can teach you a lot. If you have an old manuscript lying around, I encourage you to dig it out of the closet (or wherever else you’ve hidden it) and see what you might learn.

    Like

  2. Lucille Younger says:

    I have a musical drama, about 30-years-old now. I think, though, the message and circumstances are still relevant. I also think the music was the strongest component. Think I’ll have a look-see.
    I enjoyed your article very much.

    Like

  3. Hey, you were a teenager and it was an early attempt. Of course you did everything wrong. But you learned and got much better.
    I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of purple prose though.

    Like

  4. Chrys Fey says:

    I started writing a series at 12. When I was 17 I rewrote the series into what it is today, but I wouldn’t have my current series without the other one. I look at it now and cringe and laugh, but deep down I still love it. When I rewrote it, I turned it from a YA series to an adult series, but one day I plan on rewriting it again…yes again…so I can keep the original story line but make it better. I’ve already plotted out the stories. They are just on the back burner until I can get to them.

    Those early attempts can be embarrassing but they are treasures. 🙂

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  5. #3 yup I definitely learned this too! it’s always great though when we can look back and learn from our mistakes!

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  6. denizb33 says:

    My teenage writing is full of purple prose. I used to think finding a flowery word in the thesaurus to replace a simple word was a good thing to do!

    Like

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