I appreciate advice, and I especially like tips. I may not use a specific tip in my own life, but I’ll store it my head and pull it out when someone else might need it. And you writers, you always have great advice to give about lessons learned. Much of what I’ve done as a public relations pro has been to guide clients on what they can do to educate and persuade their audience.
When I first spoke with playwright and debut novelist Frank Strausser back in August, I was intrigued. He had advice I hadn’t heard before:
“Writers should take acting classes.”
“More authors should gather their friends to read their books aloud.”
And Strausser’s book, entitled PLASTIC, had an outrageous cover. It was so shocking, so dramatic, so FX Network. And given my profession, it’s no big surprise that I particularly like drama. I use it. Often.
In my earlier PR years, I would script my pitches to the media. I did so much cold calling, and I had such a range of clientele, it was an absolute to get the messaging out, but to also not sound like a moron. I would practice my pitches aloud at home while cooking or cleaning. What’s the hook? How do I personalize this pitch for said journalist? Why does she want to hear this?
As a mom of two younger children, I read stories to them each night. And I spent a year reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to them. Reading only a few pages at a time aloud, I connected to the book in a way that was different. So, in many ways, Strausser was speaking my language during that August call.
Here’s a Q&A with this intriguing writer. Perhaps he’s speaking your language too.
1) A literary agent once said to you “Your writing needs to be not true to life, but bigger than life.” What was your initial reaction to this? And what did you understand it to mean.
The problem with a big note like this is that it is so sweeping. It’s not something that is so simple to address either. Some of the problem is that most of what we write is deeply felt, but does it engage? Does it excite? Does it shock? A simple reading of this note is that my writing needed more drama. I guess what was hardest about this note is that I didn’t have the tools to fully understand how to get there. And I wouldn’t until I studied story structure with Robert McKee and acting at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.
The problem with being too true to life is that life doesn’t have a dramatic arc. Things feel dramatic at the time but they’re random and drama requires an artificial structure. Beats. And they need to build.
Further, as I would subsequently learn in studying with the late Milton Katselas at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. There’s an awful lot to creating drama. But the fundamental mechanism is conflict. If it isn’t there, you don’t have drama. You are instead simply recording life, which was my problem originally.
2) Today, as an acclaimed playwright and a debut novelist, what does this mean to you?
It’s been a long journey. I can say this has been my life’s work. My writing is the totality of my life experience and all that time I spent working in the coal mine as it were learning how to write effectively.
There’s so much that I had to learn. It’s not just how to write but it’s also the business of being a writer. How do we get people interested? How do we get a play produced? A novel published? Each of these challenges are almost as profound in there difficulty as the writing process itself.
3) A piece of advice you have for other authors is to free oneself from the computer and take an acting class. Most of the writers I know are introverts so this seems like an impossibility. Why should an author even dare consider it?
The amusing thing about the two and half years I spent at the Beverly Hills Playhouse is that while I was in an acting class, I didn’t ever act. It’s not that I couldn’t, but I was politely advised that since I was there as a writer, I should be careful about acting because my writing would inevitably be linked to my failure as an actor. I was in a “master class”, studying with very accomplished actors. So I spent much of my time observing.
The class was by design a scene study class, meaning that every Saturday morning, three half hours scenes would go up on stage, many that had been worked on for months, and Milton would critique them each for an hour, often ripping them to shreds and reducing actors to tears. I found it highly entertaining! I remember the first scene I saw was from “Frankie & Johnny” and there was an actress running around the stage completely naked. The scene was profane and highly dramatic!
But watching a director break down the work and explore its effectiveness as drama was something that I’d never encountered in creative writing classes because they were too intellectual. There’s something electrifying about getting the work up on its feet.
4) What were you two or three biggest takeaways from acting class.
Just as actors need to be “in the moment” so does the writing. You have to allow the characters to respond organically and follow that wherever it takes you. Performance is live. But the writing must be too.
Characters make choices and it’s through these that they come alive. Everything a character does is a choice.
All scenes need a little trouble. If there isn’t conflict, you don’t have drama.
5) You also suggest to authors to free their work from the page and encourage authors to organize friends to read their work aloud. Why?
A story can be well-written, meaning you have a fine prose style. This can often disguise the fact that the scenes and the characters are poorly drawn or fail to rise to their dramatic potential. So experiment with having friends play different characters and read the dialogue alone. Friends will ask why their character does something because they have to play them and it may not be clear. As much as possible you want to see the writing in a different context so that you can really see it. When the scenes are free of exposition and explanation, you’ll see if the characters stand on their own. Does some of the language feel stilted? Do the readers feel they wanted to do or say something else in that moment? Frankly, even having someone read the whole story out loud will help you hear and see your work differently.
6) Who are your favorite authors?
There are so many! I’ve read most of Graham Greene. The plays of Noel Coward. But then I also like novelists AM Holmes and JB Ballard. So I’m all over the lot.
8) What the one book you wish you had written
WE by Yevgeny Zamyatin.