7 Things I’ve Learned About Writing From Casting

Bethany casting a major motion picture in 2014... right before 1,055 boys and their entourages arrived

Bethany casting a major motion picture in 2014… right before 1,055 boys and their entourages arrived

One of my favorite jobs is being a Casting Assistant for Arvold.

A funny thing happens when you work casting. Actors come up to you and ask, “why didn’t (my son / my niece / my spouse) I get the part?!?”

If I’m ever feeling low about my rejections (I’m currently 0 for 2 this year on screenwriting competitions), I remind myself of these seven things I’ve learned about writing from casting.

  1. There’s a lottery element to producing creative work. I recently assisted at an “open call”, e.g. an audition for a major motion picture that was open to the public. We auditioned ONE THOUSAND FIFTY FIVE boys in four hours. We turned away over a thousand more. The police had to direct traffic. Art is tied to dreams, and a lot of people share the dream of seeing their creative work produced and shared and enjoyed. So the competition is stiff. It’s just not statistically sound to expect more yesses than noes.
  2. It’s worth it to show up even if I don’t book the gig. Most of the actors I see don’t book the part they’re auditioning for. But, I get to see them work. Which means when I’m brainstorming whom to call for the next project, the faces I’ve seen over and over again leap to mind. Familiarity is powerful. If you’re professional on the phone and email, show up on time, take direction, and keep your cool, you’re showing that you’re a pro – even if you don’t book this particular gig. So I make sure when I’m talking with agents, editors, producers, and other professionals, I’m behaving myself accordingly. Even if they don’t bite on my project. Yet.
  3. A performance can be amazing – and not right for the job. I have cried at auditions where the actor did not book the part. If we are looking for a haggard woman crying over the death of her son, and the actor is young and beautiful, they may nail the performance but simply not be right for the role. I submitted to a comedy screenplay contest earlier this year. My script is good, but it is dark. I call it a dark comedy, but reviewers call it a comedic drama. If the contest winner turns out to be a classic slapstick comedy, I’ll know my submission just was not right for what the judges were looking for.
  4. No performance happens in a vacuum. No actor’s performance stands alone in a film or TV show. It needs to be compatible with the other performances. If we’ve already cast 10 of 20 speaking roles for a particular show, the other 10 roles that remain to be cast need actors who complement the rest. The same holds true for a publisher’s line-up. If I submit a Young Adult manuscript about a 15-year-old Physics prodigy, and the publisher is already about to debut a Young Adult book about a 15-year-old Astrophysics prodigy, that’s just my bad luck. My book does not exist in a vacuum.
  5. Some days are bad days. This doesn’t really need an explanation. Even good actors have a bad day and turn in a lackluster performance. Sometimes my writing has no spark. C’est la vie.
  6. Some actors aren’t ready yet. We’re doing emerging actors a favor by not putting them in roles they can’t carry. Ideally, we want to set everyone up so they can succeed. Frankly, when I look back on it, I’m really relieved some of the manuscripts I submitted never got picked up. I would not want my major debut to have been that (in hindsight) overwritten mess.
  7. Beautiful and photogenic are not the same thing. I’m still trying to come to grips with the difference between what looks good to the naked eye and what works on camera. There are a lot of differences, actually: What works on stage is massive overkill on camera. Comic timing and dramatic connection are not the same muscle. Large features on a face may look a bit strange in person, but the camera lens may love them. And lots of actors are still trying to work out where exactly their talent lies – and auditions can help that process, because experts are effectively giving feedback over time based on what kinds of jobs an actor ultimately books. I felt that way about my writing for a long time. Do I write short stories? Fables? YA? Flash fiction? Graphic novels? It wasn’t until I really dug into screenwriting that I felt like I found my true strength.

I guess if there’s one thing to take away about writing from casting, it’s that persistence and professionalism pay off. Don’t take rejection personally; it’s probably moving you closer to your goal.

 

Arvold casts award-winning film (Lincoln), television (Turn: Washington’s Spies), and commercials (just wait till you see the Williamsburg Tourism commercial coming in 2015). If you are interested in learning more about film and television in the Mid-Atlantic, consider attending one of the monthly Arvold Live sessions – they are an invaluable discussion with industry pros about how Virginia’s star is rising for actors – and everyone who works in the business.

Bethany Joy Carlson writes dark comedy screenplays. (Or comedic dramas, depending on whom you ask.) She is a WriterHouse Board member, owner of TheArtistsPartner.com, and founder of BACCA.

The Stories We Tell

I loved to make up stories when I was a kid. It seemed a simple, easy thing to do, back then. As I grew up, I stopped writing stories. Later, I committed to other art forms, and when I wrote sentences, I wrote nonfiction, not stories. Not long ago, I began again. I dared myself to try making up stories, by signing up for classes at WriterHouse.

Since then, I have slowly gotten more competent through practice, practice, and practice. My writer group, BACCA Literary, is one reason why. We first met, in fact, in a fiction class at WriterHouse.

This writer group has provided me with a monthly deadline for producing – well, something. We’ve been sharing work with one another for at least thirty months. I’ve emailed a Word document out to the others by the late-Friday deadline, every darn month. Well, there was one exception, when my family life was too chaotic, a couple of years ago. So let’s say I’ve been sharing work for at least 29 months and leave it at that.

Good Enough?

Sure, I recognize that I haven’t always sent my best work to the other three writers in the group. “Best” is relative, measured on a sliding scale. Over time, I raised my standards for what’s good enough to send out to the writer group members. After I allocated more time each month to work on writing, I became dissatisfied with my earlier stories. Now I can predict with confidence that the stories I am pleased with now will one day look a little shabby to me.

Your Best doesn't always look the same

Your Best doesn’t always look the same

Meanwhile, I have become less able to turn off the inner voice whispering, “Go ahead. Send something out and see if it gets published.” It was easy the first couple of years to hush that voice. I knew my work wasn’t ready to travel beyond the writer group.

For new-ish writers like me, hushing that voice gets trickier over time. We want to believe we’re improving. We want to believe there’s going to be an audience one day, however small or particularly quirky that audience may reveal itself to be. We want to nourish the creative spirit that energizes our whole enterprise. We want to begin to send work out to people – strangers – not in our writer group. I considered how to start.

The P-Word

To prepare to send work out into the world, I set up a spreadsheet to track my efforts to get published. Then I let the spreadsheet sit for quite a while, untouched. Later on, I added a tab to my spreadsheet with key facts on the publications that most appealed to me – things like deadlines, formatting preferences, lag time before they decide what to publish, method of submission, categories they favor, contact information, etc. The enhanced spreadsheet sat again, for a long break. More recently, I actually sent a few things out and made entries into the spreadsheet. I’ve heard back with two rejections, which I dutifully entered into the appropriate cells. I’m waiting for replies from the others.

I hesitated to send out my work until I felt satisfied enough with it that it didn’t feel too embarrassing. I chose carefully the places I sent those first few submissions – not too grandiose, and yet consistent with who I am as a writer.

And that just begs the questions, doesn’t it?

Questions

Who am I, as a writer, and why am I doing this? Author Dan Holloway, in his recent essay, What Do You Want from Your Writing in 2014 and Beyond? at Jane Friedman’s blog, says:

“If you don’t know what you want from your writing, what on earth are you doing writing anything? How can you possibly tell whether your words do what you want them to?”

It’s actually not that hard a question. It rests on a more fundamental one. Why do you write?”

Please don’t tell me the answer is “I make art because I must.” To me, that feels lazy and self-aggrandizing in a “poor-me,” humblebrag kind of way. Besides it ignores free will.

the words, Why Write?

Oh. THAT question.

I could tell you I write because I’ve engaged with the challenge to improve my work. The challenge is difficult enough always to involve real effort, yet rewarding enough, because of the progress I am making, to continue to motivate me to get better at it.

I could tell you I write because my life with music was altered when hand surgery made playing instruments too difficult. I could tell you I write because I’ve grown old enough to take a longer and more loving view of life. I could tell you that there’s plenty to love about writing for its own sake. Polishing a story can make my day, even when no one else has seen it yet.

Also, the most fun I’ve had with my writing lately was when some visiting non-literary friends asked me to read them a piece after I cooked them dinner. That was a blast. My fellow BACCA-ite, Claire Elizabeth Cameron, touched on this recently when she wrote,

“People are doing work for free, work for fun, work for creativity all over the place, and it’s making this world a better place. Success [in writing] is making a connection.”

So why am I writing? To get better at it. To see how much I can improve. To see if my embarrassment-meter gives me the green light to send out stories to more publications. To see if I receive a green light in return. And, in the meantime, to keep telling stories.

#amwriting

A M Carley

A M Carley is a co-founder of BACCA Literary. She owns and operates Chenille Books where she works with nonfiction authors.