Category Archives: process

The challenges of plotting Mrs. Hawking part 4

Bernie and I have begun work on Mrs. Hawking part four, tentatively titled Gilded Cages, and we’re running into some challenges. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, as we’ve had this happen with each subsequent installment, but this one has presented some difficulties that are thus far unique.


The biggest thing to deal with is the fact that we’re writing a colonial story. Part four is going to be split into a present day case in 1885, and a flashback story to Mrs. Hawking’s youth in the colonies. We haven’t decided WHICH colony, though, as we are still doing research to figure out if there are any historical features that would serve our turn. What I’d really like to display is that some terrible event that happened during Victoria’s childhood demonstrated to her how corrupt and broken the system is, which helped to shape her worldview in the present. A natural possibility is witnessing something of the horrors of Victorian colonialism. But I really don’t want to just turn the suffering of the local people to be just a lesson for my white hero, or make her into a white savior for those same. And I definitely don’t want to sidestep the issue and just end up tell a story set in a colony that’s only about the white invaders.

What I’ve got here is a Problem of the Protagonist, to use my own theory– when the need to centralize a particular character ends up objectifying or dehumanizing other characters. Because my hero is white, it runs the risk of turning any characters I include of the local people into objects who exist only to facilitate my protagonist’s story. And I definitely do not want to do that with characters of color.

I’m going to put in the work on this. I’ve got a lot of researching and developing to do yet. But I do know a good way to keep a character human is to give them their own arc, demonstrating that their story is one worth following, and affording them agency in the story, making them take actions in the service of achieving their goals and needs. So, while I’m by no means certain yet, my current idea I’m exploring involves having a local character whose personal mission is the central arc of the flashback’s story. This character, who’d probably be female, could have the protagonistic qualities of wanting something, taking actions to pursue it, and driving the plot with their efforts. Perhaps if she drives the story, and other characters are in the position of being reactive to that, I can avoid making any such person being subservient to Victoria’s development.

I’m not sure yet. I’ll have to do more work. But I’m resolved to figure out how to do this in a respectful, conscientious way.

Vivat Regina and Base Instruments by Phoebe Roberts will be performed January 13th-15th at the Boston Westin Waterfront Hotel as part of Arisia 2017.

A work by any other name

I’ve always struggled with choosing titles for my written work. A lot rides on a title, so I have have standards for them that I’ve never been that good at meeting. They are the symbol of and the reference by which the work is known, so it should appropriate and worth to represent piece’s soul and quality.

A title needs many things. It must be easy to say and remember. It needs to sound good, with the right ring to be appealing. It can’t be too generic, or it won’t seem special to that story or stick in people’s minds. And it needs to really sum up the work it stands for, in a quick, catchy way. That’s a pretty tall order! Which is why I find it so challenging to come up with titles I’m satisfied with.

I tend to default to naming my stories after their protagonist. It’s often the easiest way to come up with a short, punchy, indicative title that sounds okay. I do choose pretty good character names, so at least they have a ring to them. “Mrs. Hawking,” for example. But they’re definitely on the obvious rather than the clever end of things.

The sort of titles that impress me most are those that use a non-literal idea that somehow represents the spirit of the story. Like, if you know what idea the title represents, you can see how that idea represents something important to the piece. The closest I’ve ever come to that sort of memetic title is “Base Instruments,” the name of Mrs. Hawking part three. A major theme of that story is people whose grandest ambitions and purposes demand perfection, but they are forced to confront the fact that human imperfections will always limit them. But, as Mrs. Hawking says, “Our instruments are base ones, but they are all God gives us for the task.”

Generally I’m not a fan of the “title drop” in the dialogue. It was supposedly a feature of the traditional “well-made” plays, like “Sometimes I feel like a cat on a hot tin roof!” But I usually find it so awkward and self-conscious, like it grinds the story’s momentum to a halt as it takes you out of the flow. But I included that because most of my early readers didn’t see the title’s relevance without it, and I think that phrasing keeps it a bit more of a natural piece of dialogue than if I just reproduced the actual construction in the name.

I also tend to like titles with a slight note of irony, I find. It’s usually not obvious, but I like knowing that the ones I pick both represent the story and yet also hint at an important conflict in their inaccuracy, if you know what I mean. All the Mrs. Hawking titles have this. “Mrs. Hawking” is the protagonist’s name, but identifying her in terms of her marriage is in no way accurate to the person that she is. “Vivat Regina” is a patriotic expression means “Long live the queen,” but the hero of that story strongly disapproves of the queen and all she stands for. And as I said, “Base Instruments,” refers to human limitations compromising the perfection of enterprise, but still the people confronting this truth possess truly exquisite instruments nonetheless.

The best one I’ve ever come up with— as is often the case with this piece, I find —is in my opinion “Adonis.” Punchy, evocative, representative, mellifluous, recognizable, and with that delicious undertone of irony. Adonis refers to our protagonist Aidan, and yet it doesn’t— it refers to an artificial personality that was forced on him, one that he resents, and stands for the major problem of his life. That’s a lot to ask from a single word, and yet it achieves all that. It’s good enough that I have no idea what to call the subsequent installments of the story, because I don’t know what else could ever be as good.

Bernie also recently brought up the issue of titles not just for individual works but for series. They present an additional level of challenge, because they have to sum up an entire collection of stories. With my own, I tend to default to the title of the first work, referring to them as “the Mrs. Hawking series” or “the Adonis trilogy.” The only good one I’ve ever devised is “Breaking History,” the collective name I gave to everything within my greater historical fiction universe, which includes the Hawking stories, the collection around The Stand, and the greater Fairfield family.

Some random titles I admire, ignoring those named explicitly for their protagonist or for the obvious setting. Game of Thrones is excellent, definitely better than the series name, so I’m not surprised that the TV adaptation chose to go with that rather than A Song of Ice and Fire. Halo, for the video game, is one of the most exquisite titles I’ve ever encountered for any creative work ever. I do not like puns, however, which cuts out a huge chunk of possibilities. I haven’t watched Orphan Black, so I don’t know if it’s representative, but just on ring alone that’s fantastic. Boardwalk Empire is great. Lost is super punchy. I rarely like long titles, except as a joke about how long they are. Hark, a Vagrant!, the comic by Kate Beaton, I always loved for its specific bizarre awkwardness. So I can appreciate things outside my box. But I’m so particular about it, and the way they strike my ear can really influence my impression of the work.

The challenge of writing Base Instruments

The third installment of Mrs. Hawking is now underway. With Bernie’s help, I have begun the challenging process of plotting it out, and it’s clear that this will significantly harder than what I’ve done before.

First of all, Base Instruments will be a true mystery, as opposed to a caper like the first two stories. In Mrs. Hawking and Vivat Regina, our heroes are presented with a problem rather than a question. “Foil a blackmailer and return a kidnapped child.” “Bring a monster to justice who is hiding behind diplomatic immunity.” They knew what they were going after, and their challenge was to figure out how to accomplish it. In a mystery, however, they have to investigate to find out the answer to what’s gone on. That’s a very different story design process, as it requires the slow unfolding of the truth based on the gathering of clues, which is really tough to do in a theatrical medium. Think about it; most mystery stories require lots of people to interview and places to investigate, while in theater you have to minimize both locations and characters in order to make staging feasible. The few theatrical mysteries tend to be of the “locked room” variety, to keep both suspect pool and number of settings down.

Bernie and I are trying to use that “locked room” model after a fashion for that very reason. Still, this play is going to have a LOT of speaking characters, there’s just no way around it. We’ve got our three leads, of course, and we’re starting to build up a cast of supporting characters we want to recur and develop– in this case, Nathaniel’s wife Clara and Arthur, the policeman Mary befriended. I also want to include Nathaniel’s brother Justin Hawking, and of course there’s going to have to be all the characters specifically involved in the mystery.

But we’re trying to concern ourselves more with telling the best possible story than with “production stuff” yet. Writing a compelling mystery will be tough enough on its own. I’ve been watching a ton of mysteries lately for research, and we’re going to be working out a lot of kinks. Wish us luck! I want the next installment of this story to continue the upward trajectory of the last two.

“Have you thought beyond all this?”

Banged out a scene for possible use in one of the Adonis sequels. It’s very rough and not well phrased, but I just wrote it to explore an idea I may want to establish. This would serve as groundwork and foreshadowing. Bernie disagrees with me on this one, but I think I can bring him around.

I like when I can actually explore an idea for a story by writing actual text for it. Especially when I can make it part of the subtext of a scene that’s ostensibly about something else.

“Have You Thought Beyond All This?”

Aidan watches Morna as she works, bent intensely over her desk.

AIDAN: Callisto’s soldiers have returned, they’re waiting for orders.

MORNA: Good. That’s good. I will come to them when the reconnaissance returns.

She rubs her eyes tiredly.

AIDAN: Have you thought beyond all this? To when it’s finally over?

MORNA: It’s hard to see that far.

AIDAN: I can’t stop thinking of it. When the fighting’s done. When we can… build lives finally. Is that foolish?

MORNA: Aidan. Everything I’ve done in this has been to see that you can have the life you wanted.

AIDAN: Do you never hope for it?

MORNA: Hope for what?

AIDAN: A life for yourself, Morna. Love, a home and family? Children?

Morna laughs bitterly.

MORNA: I don’t think marriage is for me.

AIDAN: Why not?

MORNA: After seeing what the lusts of women did to you all those years, I don’t believe I could ever bear to visit it on anyone.

Aidan winces.

AIDAN: Morna. It doesn’t have to be that way.

MORNA: I know. But I will never forget it.

AIDAN: I hope one day we’re able to move past this. All of this.


AIDAN: Don’t you?

Morna pushes back her long blonde hair.

MORNA: I have a war to win, Aidan. I can think of nothing else.

BlueCat feedback on Tailor at Loring’s End screenplay!

As with the Adonis script, I submitted my Tailor at Loring’s End screenplay to the BlueCat Screenwriting Contest at well. I was nervous at first that the feedback on this one was taking so much longer to arrive, but I finally got it the other day. I am pleased to say that it was quite positive as well! Though this is the first screenplay I ever wrote, the story idea was a solid one, and I have revised it many times. It made it to the Quarter Finals of the Big Break contest last year, so I had some confidence in it.

“What did you like about this script?

The Tailor at Loring’s End is as lovingly crafted and detailed as the debutante dress that is a center piece throughout the film. It deftly takes the audience back into the luxe and mysterious past of a powerful family, giving a really rich and suspenseful tone to the story.

Sometimes flashbacks can be clumsy, but The Tailor at Loring’s End uses them well. Not only do the flashbacks carry the same rich tone as the present, but the two stories parallel each other while still allowing for each of the characters to show their own personalities and uniqueness.

The idea of a powerful family betraying their country during the war is a great one, filled with complications and opportunities for conflicting emotions for all the characters. Do you cherish your father for building an empire? Or you despise him for then betraying the country in order to continue his legacy? Do you reject the idea of classism or do you relish in its bounty? This is also seen in the setting; there’s a sense that Lorings End is both very airy and light while being repressive and cavernous.

The side characters of The Tailor At Loring’s End are really great additions to the story. Della, Kenneth, and Crier are all vivid and unique, putting all their separate know how in order to help what is good. There is a satisfaction in a team that helps out two young lovers and inquisitors, despite their aged wisdom knowing that the world is more complicated than it seems. Della fills in as an excellent maternal figure to Tom and Crier is charming due to both his bumbling nature and commitment to the job.”

The core of the story, the themes, and the supporting cast are what this reader responded to most strongly, which I’m very happy to hear. They picked up on the purpose of the team drawing together to fix things in the end, as well as how the flashbacks were designed to parallel and compare with the modern-day story. I knew all that, the plot, themes, and setting were the parts I was most confident in, but it pleases me to hear that a reader responded to them.

The negatives were not extremely negative, but they were a bit perplexing to me.

“What do you think needs work?

There could be a little more development on both Tom and Alice. They are the focal pieces of the script and the audience’s heroes, but it’s hard to truly describe them outside of their external journey. What makes them unique, the only people capable of figuring the Loring mystery out? While the backstory of Alice and her family is the main plot of the story, what about Tom? There are mentions of his past; learning from his talented mother, leaving a more commercially successful shop to make dresses. These things could be developed more. Where is his father? Did he go to school? Has he travelled at all? Who is Tom outside of a talented tailor?

As for Alice, does she go to school? Is she trapped inside the estate both physically and mentally? Does she have any hobbies, particularly any hobbies that she might share with Tom? Her bond with her family is the initial element of the mystery so unfolding her relationship, both emotionally and historically, with each member of the Lorings would make the story even more compelling.

Establishing their personalities more, their wants and desires outside of the family mystery, could really heighten the tension and further push the audience’s want for the two of them to somehow be together.

It was a little unclear if Kenneth knew of Reginald’s betrayal and wanted to expose him or if he just was still lovesick over Bethany. There are two very different motivations for both reasons. If Kenneth needed the papers to prove that Reginald was a traitor, it seems that he would have been trying to convince the public of this for years, and not just after Emma’s death. If he was searching for the papers in order to investigate Bethany’s mysterious death, this would be a bit simpler.”

I’m of several minds about this. On one hand, I’m a bit skeptical of the criticism that Tom and Alice are not strongly defined enough, as three of my professors saw this script and none of them found the leads to be too thin. In fact, rather hilariously, Barry Brodsky, the teacher I wrote it with initially, gave me the exact opposite feedback– he found Tom and Alice compelling, but thought my supporting cast like Della and Crier to be lacking in dimension. An unfortunate feature of making art is that there is no uniform standard by which to grade it, so it’s common to get educated opinions formed from two entirely different impressions. On the other hand, defining characters for people who are not in my head has been a problem in another thing I’ve been working on recently, enough that I’m inclined to worry it’s actually a problem.

Because I want to progress in the contest, it probably doesn’t make sense not to make the attempt to edit and resubmit to improve my standing, even though I’m not entirely sure I agree with the critique. And I’m not sure how to go about making it clearer. I don’t think just sticking in answers to a lot of those questions is the way. “Where’s Tom’s father?” He’s dead, he’s not important to this story. (Also I notice you don’t mind that Alice’s mother’s not dealt with, probably because I dealt with her father to your satisfaction. Moms being important is weird, dads being important is normal, amirite? :-P) “Does Alice go to school?” She just got out of school, I’m pretty sure that’s mentioned in a line and not that important anymore.

Bleh. I’m probably just being defensive. I am prone to that. I just wish I could more clearly envision way to fix that problem (if it really exists). I find “define this character more” to be particularly hard note to address, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s because they seem plenty clear to me, and I don’t know why others can’t see it. But it’s worth making the attempt. The other note, about Kenneth’s motivations/knowledge being made a little clear, is a fine one; concrete and easy to take, so no problem addressing that there.

As I said, I’m mostly happy with this feedback, and if it’s this positive it’s probably got as a good a shot as any in the contest.

God willing, Tom, Diana, Alice, and Aidan will take this contest by storm! 😉

Encouraging feedback on Adonis from BlueCat Screenwriting Contest!

This past month I submitted Adonis to BlueCat, one of the more significant screenwriting competitions, which before they judge gives you feedback on your script. I nervously opened what they sent me about Adonis, and I was pleased to find it encouraging!

"What did you like about this script?

The opening of the script is incredibly effective. Without ever going into any unnecessary explanation, we see from the very opening that this is an interesting subversion of the usual gladiatorial epic. There are so many stories of the hardened soldier who is made to see how the other half lives when he falls in love—and then to go native as a result (“Avatar” also immediately springs to mind); that this gender flip seems so obvious and clever, it’s almost hard to believe no one else has done it before.

The scene in which Aidan is forcibly held down and raped by a group of Roman soldiers is quite chilling; it also really effectively demonstrates what many men are unable to grasp about sexual assault. By envisioning a world in which women had dominance over men, the film acts as a sort of subtle feminist corrective to ancient history, and perhaps it will force men to see the historical patterns of subjugation have existed since the days of Rome.

The script hinges on the basis of its characters, and it succeeds based on the fact that they are each given their own legitimate grievances and motivations. Diana's need to maintain the status quo makes perfect sense within the context of her character’s position as a general, as does Aidan's need to see the system changed, because he is a slave.

The script never tries to make its characters “right” or “wrong” however; Aiden’s arguments with his sister Morna over which is preferable: to live as a slave, or to die seeking freedom, have a real emotional complexity and weight, precisely because neither is wrong; it depends solely on one’s vantage point.

The most emotionally affecting parts of the script then, are watching Aiden's confusion at Diana's behavior. He cannot understand that she wants him to love her, as he has only ever lived in a world where he has been someone's property. This is the kind of story line that we are so often used to seeing in many gladiatorial films, but the gender reversal brings it into sharp relief; again it's the sort of thing, where it is strange to watch men being stripped of their agency–and it is only then we realize that the script is making a very salient point about the treatment of women throughout history."

This makes me feel good about it because this person GOT it. They got the point of the script, the flipping of the gender conventions to make a feminist point about behavior– and of storytelling –down through history. They even seemed to think it was something new and never before been done! The point of Aidan's assault came across, and had the desired creeping effect. They bought the characters and found their relationships and interactions compelling, which are the heart of the movie.

I can't tell you how glad I am of this. It's proof of concept that our ideas READ, and that there exist people outside our little sphere who are able to read them. An actual reader, trained in the studio process of evaluating scripts, got the point of our transgressive film! That is huge!

"What do you think needs work?

While there is something to be said for the element of surprise, the fact that we never see more of Morna's plan coming together, almost makes the uprising feel less impactful than it could be. If we could see her passing the messages back-and-forth, or even more moments of Brigin helping her discuss the plans, I feel that the beat would land better.

And given the importance of Morna's belief in rallying the slaves to seek their own freedom, it seems a little strange that we never see her recruiting the other slaves, nor do we ever see them discussing their options. It would be intriguing, and the theme of freedom versus slavery could be taken further, if there was dissension among the ranks, and some did not want to fight. Aiden may be a symbol among the slaves, but this does not make him the stand in for all slaves, or all the plebians of Roman society.

And all though the successful uprising certainly does not mean they have won, something feels incomplete in the ending. Yes, we know that the greatest fight is to come, but it would be nice, if we could focus on their successes just a bit more, before we fade to black."

This is good criticism, though. It's useful, doable, and on-point with the rest of the film. That's the best kind. Basically the reader wanted to see more of the mechanics of Morna building the revolution so they could believe in its existence more. That was something that was challening for us the first time around, so I can understand it still needing more to come across. We can definitely add more with a little effort. And the last part, wanting a little more character presence in their victory at the end, is a very easy fix.

It's possible to edit and resubmit before the final judging. Bernie and I definitely think we will do that. The fact that an actual respectable screenwriting organization responded so positively gives us hope that this script has a prayer of getting somewhere in the real world.

The naming gymnastics I went through for Adonis

In Adonis, there’s a name scheme going on that’s even more complicated than what I usually do. Adonis is not the name of any character in the story; rather, it’s kind of a title, perhaps most analagous to a stage name, for one of my two leads. I chose it for two reasons, as I mentioned yesterday— it’s a cultural touchstone for a beautiful young man, and because I always felt what happened to him in “Venus and Adonis” was a depiction of rape.

I named my female lead Diana first. I chose it because of the obvious connotations, the Roman name of the goddess of the hunt, alluding to her martial nature. Also I like the sound of it; the sound of names is often even more important to me than the meaning, as people will have to say them over and over.

My male lead– the titular “Adonis” –I knew needed a Celtic name because of the background I gave him, so I looked up some options online. There are a number of Celtic names I have a fondness for and briefly considered; Taran was a frontrunner, or possibly Galen, until in my searching I came upon Aidan. Not only was its meaning referring to a sun personification a nice counterpart to the moon connections of Diana, the spellings are anagrams of each other. That moon-sun dichotomy also tied in nicely to the secondary epithets Aidan is assigned, "Apollo" and "golden god" in reference to his beauty and his blond hair.

A lot of this just worked out this way, but I did do even more work than usual to keep the themes unified in the naming.

The drafting process

The drafting process doesn’t come naturally to me, and as such, at times I find it frustrating. During my early development as a writer, I was extremely compelled to edit as I wrote, and if I couldn’t figure out just how I wanted to phrase something, I wouldn’t write it. That lead to nothing ever getting written, as that level of perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. It wasn’t until I started telling myself to just write SOMETHING, no matter how bad it was, no matter how far away from what I was envisioning, that I started actually making progress.

Of course, when you finally start working that way, you need to next confront the challenge that is the process of revising. This too did not come naturally to me. Most of the time, when I write something flawed I can tell that there’s something not right about it— though not always, never discount the value of other sets of eyes —but just couldn’t figure out how to do it properly instead. I am subjected to the feeling of “Well, if I knew what it was supposed to be, I would have written it that way the first time!” Which is of course an utter fallacy, but it’s one I have to work through.

The two ways I combat this are as follows. First I resign myself to the fact that the first draft is going to suck. I don’t shoot for “good” or “accurate” the first time around; I just shoot for finished. I get some semblance of a complete telling of my story. I chunk it down into small pieces; scenes are usually for me the most convenient. When that first very, very rough draft is finished, then I like to do a second pass, seeing if any easy or obvious fixes jump out at me. The result of that, which I continue to pick at, becomes draft two.

The second things is having friends come over to read the script and give opinions. That has been amazingly helpful for me. It gives me fresh perspectives, and allows me a little bit of critical distance that enables me to see what I wrote in a new way. That often gets me passed that “if I knew how it should be I would have written it that way the first time” feeling. I’m so lucky and grateful for friends who come over and do this for me; I owe them so much. I then do the next round of edits based on their comments. Often I have a reading of this third draft as well, and that second round of responses often leads to the more or less finalized version.

And now I’m writing about writing in order to procrastinate writing. That’s enough of that! Back to the work that got me thinking about this in the first place.