Shakespeare

On the writing industry

Chris Struck

Chris Struck

Chris Struck talks writing.

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Recently, I’ve wondered if there really are any helpful tips that I could give new writers. Sure, I’ve studied a lot of literary techniques and theory, but how helpful is yet another analysis of “what makes a great character” in a world where the evaluation of your work is subjective? Instead, I thought I might throw together a quick blog post on my route to publishing.

My circuitous, 12-year chase finally resulted in my first published book on Tuesday (6/11/19), and despite being compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alexandre Dumas, and Herman Hesse, the book sneaked past the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Time, and every other noteworthy news outlet. Unfortunately, even after writing a great book, it’s still not that easy to get the word out there, and the advice is generally unhelpful. Authors today need platforms, and the most successful launches are done by people with backing like Michelle Obama and Tom Brady. Even three years ago, the barometer I heard from Penguin reps, was “300 twitter followers.” The same advice sounds laughable now.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve seen the fiction industry change considerably. When I first started, you could still send snail mail manuscripts to major publishing houses. I even delivered my first manuscript, printed, to the door of a top editor at Tor Books’s home. Only a few years later, I was sending five, ten, fifteen, or fifty pages to agents that I meticulously researched as publishing houses stopped accepting direct submissions. I followed all the advice that I could find on how to write a cover letter and seemingly, less than a year later, agents were publishing blog posts about “how not to write a cover letter,” showing that I had broken all the new rules. The reality is that you can’t base a query letter on the one at the back of Stephen King’s “On Writing” and get anything but rejection. The guidelines have evolved, and cold query letters are beginning to become a thing of the recent past.

For others who have been on the outside looking in, that must seem like the norm. Advice changes as often as it is given. It’s confusing and unhelpful no matter the source. Sometimes you pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for an editor or agent to spew another list of tips that after integrating into your work, fails to make a difference. I’ve met more agents than I could bother to remember, more “top” editors since that first one in the late noughties, and a variety of other industry reps – and unfortunately, the age-old, “it’s about the writing” hasn’t been my experience. Has it ever been? If it was ever about writing quality, and Moby Dick was always as good as people believe it to be, why did it take almost 80 years to get popular? While I’m not a huge fan of the book, it’s a testament to faith in literature and shows that sometimes it appears legacy is luck.

My first manuscript was not my first novel. My first novels were written in early 2010 and submitted to agents. In retrospect, I think they were good stories, maybe not perfect, but definitely, too short. Even then, short novels were unpopular, but with the rise of NaNoWriMo, they became even more so. Suddenly, the standard went from 50-60k to 80k minimum, and popular books seemed to more likely have the ATOS reading level of a 4th grader than not. If you spent any time developing subtext into your novel (not to be confused with symbolism), then your work might confuse readers and unfortunately, an agent with ten seconds, geared to not care about your book, isn’t going to take ten minutes to analyze one line. To be honest, I don’t think that has anything to do with, “why my novels haven’t meshed well with agents,” but it’s a reality of writing and publishing today. Meaning, you should probably write a simple, long book, but even that’s not a guarantee of success.

My third novel topped out at 85k words, was written at roughly 1000 words per day over about 3 months, and the feedback I received made it seem irreconcilably devoid of quality. But as usual, I took the feedback and integrated it into new novels, and some of it, especially knocks on the depth of my characters, I took as a personal challenge. Two months later, I had written two more novels (my 4th and 5th), one roughly 65k words (after cutting from 74) and another roughly 85k words, that were developed from fragments of the back stories of two of my main characters and featured entirely new supporting characters. The feedback for book 4 was less atrocious, and the agent reception for book 5, which I thought would surely be accepted was…silence.

I went back to the drawing board, picked up some old ideas that weren’t heavy enough to be novels, and made it a 2016 goal to write 2 short stories a month until the end of the year. I made it through 18 short stories before August but stopped there. Only one of the last ones I had written had found a home, and the e-zine went defunct shortly after. Even after all of that effort, while working busy season hours as a junior auditor, I was effectively still unpublished. I took a hiatus from writing, until I wagered with a friend of mine that I’d write another short story if he would start making chocolates again.

So how did I get published? Instead of writing that short story, I followed through on my sixth book; it had been on the back burner, since I had written the opening few paragraphs in early April. With what later became, KENNIG & GOLD, I took a much different approach. It was no longer about reaching a minimum word count or about writing in the vogue style. The goal was to write something genuinely good and technically strong, built through classic literary techniques that had been utilized by writers such as Shakespeare and Ursula Le Guin. I came up with a loose idea, found depth through subject matter that was very dear to me (my friend Nils and his late wife Marilyn), and patterned out an outline based on developing themes through interweaving them beneath plot lines.

The result is something I’m very much proud of. And after reading it roughly 100 times, end-to-end; out loud and not; and at times in one day while timing myself, the book still finds a way of guiding me from beginning to end. Even though I had earned those 300 twitter followers, I knew that I didn’t have the following to entice Penguin to take a chance on me. They don’t throw their advertising weight behind every book anyway. I sent the book to 15 agents and received my first rejection letters, while putting in the work to self-publish the novel, despite 80-hour work weeks.

I printed off 500 business cards, delivered most of them before the publication date of April 5th, 2017, exactly one year after officially conceiving the novel. I grabbed drinks at speakeasies, jazz bars, and cocktail lounges; struck up conversations with Brazilians, Swiss, and other tourists; and held book signing and speaking events at bars in the East and West Village that supported meaningful causes. I began writing theater reviews for a blogger and later leveraged that into writing cabaret reviews for an internationally syndicated magazine. By the time January 2018 had come around, I had sold over 200 books, an important milestone I targeted after attending a Penguin conference in 2016, and through a conference (different conference) connection, I pitched “Kennig & Gold” alongside “The Sun Never Set” (a novel I wrote in 2017) as titles to BHC Press.

BHC decided they wanted both, and I took “Kennig & Gold” off of Amazon’s former self-publishing tool, Createspace, in March, and auspiciously, I received the signed contract for “Kennig & Gold” on April 5th, 2018. In conclusion, along with a lot of late nights, a lot of in-person leg-work, and a heavy dose of schmoozy sales pitching, publishing took following through on all of that advice despite a lack of immediate gratification. I had to go through a learning curve with “how” and “what” to write about, which included novels, short stories, and query letters. I had to hone my story into a concise description and synopsis, while creating an online presence (website, blog, magazine, twitter, Instagram). And ultimately, it took networking at a few conferences to connect to the right people at the right publisher. Sometimes, it feels like trying to lift a mountain, but the important thing is that I’m no longer doing it alone.

Arden/Everywhere at Baruch Performing Arts Center

This review of Arden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project at Baruch Performing Arts Center was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Arden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project
Written by William Shakespeare (As You Like It)
Conceived, Adapted & Directed by Jessica Bauman
Produced by Lico Whitfield
Stage Manager: Kristine Schlachter
Set Design: Gabriel Hainer Evansohn
Lighting Design: Christina Watanabe
Sound Design: Matt Otto
Costume Design: Nicole Slaven
Props Design: Zach Serafin
Movement Director: Brandon Powers
Fighting Scenes Director: Carmen Lacavita
Casting Director: Judy Bowman
Baruch Performing Arts Center (BPAC)
55 Lexington Avenue
New York, New York 10010
Reviewed 10/20/17

Arden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project appeared at first glance to be an original production about immigration, but it is, in fact, Shakespeare's As You Like It with some additional scenes involving refugees also living in the Forest of Arden. The classic comedy about people who find themselves exiled and living in the forest is expanded to take a broader look at the world of dislocation to discover resilience, reconciliation, and love. The immigrant experience is portrayed in sidebars taking place during scene changes. The eventual climax is a Tower of Babel "happening" at which time multiple immigrants tell their individual story in different languages at the same time. The ensemble cast of immigrant actors who play the refugees who live in the Forest of Arden, include Ali Arkane (Lebanese-American), Murodilla Fatkhullaev (Uzbekistan), Ale Mesa (Cuban-American), Denisse Jimenez (Columbia), Anton Kurdakov (Russia), Jorge Pluas (Ecuador), and George Tarr (Liberia). They bring to Arden a unique world that includes their own individual cultures (dress/music) as well as the international language of soccer. Their days are spent filling jugs at a water pump and checking a Bulletin Board in the hope that some country has decided to allow them entry. 

For the most part, this was a straightforward production of Shakespeare with little deviation, except at the end, when only the nobility gets visas to return to Court. This being my first viewing of this particular Shakespeare Comedy, I was interested given the fact that this is the play that features the soliloquy which includes the famous "All the world's a stage" line. This was delivered effectively and enthusiastically by Tommy Schrider, whose character otherwise didn't seem to play a significant role in the play. Unfortunately, his lamentations as one of the "parade" of interesting characters living in the forest are undercut to some extent by the influx of refugees that interrupted the natural fluidity to that particular aspect of the play. Fortunately, this cast included a number of talented actors, even though some of the performances were lackluster.
 

1803 Painting of Shakespeare's As you Like It

1803 Painting of Shakespeare's As you Like It

The acting duo of Helen Cespedes as Rosalind and Liba Vaynberg as Celia was fun to observe. The two of them made this play worth watching as they laughed with each other and interacted wonderfully. Basically, the play is about Helen's Rosalind (the daughter of a banished Duke) running off to the Forest of Arden dressed as a man with her childhood friend Celia after being banished by Celia's father, the "New Duke." Similar to Candide, the play makes fun of the way leadership changes often took place without the death of the rival leader leaving opportunity for rebellion. 

Complicating things is the character and parallel story of Orlando (Anthony Cason Jr.) who defeats the New Duke's champion fighter and coincidentally follows them into the forest when he must escape his brother's wrath. I wasn't as enthused by Cason's performance as Orlando, but he enunciated clearly and performed adequately. Part of it was that beside the fantastic Cespedes, he just didn't shine. Having fallen in love with Orlando, Rosalind, dressed as a man, convinces the infatuated Orlando to act like he is winning her hand while believing she is a "he." The whole "love affair" captured the audience, because Cespedes did a fantastic job lamenting on the travails and trials of love. Even more so during her cross-gender portion, Cespedes raised the level of this production. However, Cespedes and Vaynberg weren't the only actors giving impressive performances. Dennis Kozee played the role of Touchstone, the fool, very well, and Kenneth De Abrew made a convincing impression as Corin, a merchant in the forest. The combination of these two balanced out the cast which otherwise seemed overshadowed by the strengths of Cespedes and Vaynberg. Additionally, Dikran Tulaine made a fun combination of New and Old Duke. 

From my perspective, Arden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project was worth the time to see. The set and lighting were of the highest quality and the revised play made important points regarding refugees and their collective experiences. Jessica Bauman has been developingArden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project for almost three years. For more information about The "As You Like It" Project, visit www.ardeneverywhere.com  

Trump Lear at Under St. Marks

This review of Trump Lear at Under St. Mark's Theater was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Trump Lear
Written & Performed by David Carl
Co-Created & Directed by Michole Biancosino
Sound Design & Voiceovers by David Carl
Videos by Mark Stetson & David Carl
Tech by Michael Montalbano
Under St. Mark's Theater
94 St. Mark's Place
New York, New York 10009
Reviewed 9/30/17

I walked into Trump Lear with two lingering questions/doubts revolving around the idea of how Lear relates to Trump because Lear is a much different character. These questions were: "How respectful is the story to King Lear as a play?" and "How exactly does this play relate to Donald Trump?" David Carl, playing the role of Carl David, answers those questions pretty quickly. The first bit of the play discusses the literary and theatrically important significance of King Lear, even listing off a bevy of iconic actors who have mantled the role over the years including Ian McClellan, to which Trump responds, "Gandalf?"

In fact, David seemed to get two things mainly right with this play which made for an entertaining spectacle filled with laughter - Lear and Trump. Pitted against himself with a slim chance of saving his own life. David must perform his one-man King Lear for a tyrant Trump under bright interrogation lights. Trump, a disembodied voice "attached to a camera," says things like "Do you think I'm losing my mind, Carl?" and uses it as an opportunity to garner internet fame by live streaming the performance on YouTube revealing this to David only after he has broken down crying. Trump also breaks for commercials which simply portray him as the richest, smartest man alive. So far, so good.

The funny thing really was that David didn't have to stretch the truth to make a great play. He won his right to live from Trump by telling the truth. At the same time, the fictional Trump presses a lot of David's buttons and even makes reference to the fact that David should be thanking him; the stark reality being that David has made a decent living off of impersonating Trump. David responds, "Art was doing just fine before you came along."

David did a fantastic job putting it all on the line for art. While Trump Lear may not deserve the same level of virtuoso praise the original garnered, David has captured lightning in a bottle with this brilliant comedy. Ultimately, you don't need to hate Donald Trump to enjoy the show. Loving King Lear will not negatively impact your opinion. Loving Donald Trump might, but I'm not sure. I don't think much about and don't hate Donald Trump - and I love King Lear. I enjoyed this show. It's worth more than a few laughs for less than a few bucks. Better than expected. To see it, check out:www.trumplear.com 

Photo from David Carl's website - see here: http://davidcarlonline.com

Photo from David Carl's website - see here: http://davidcarlonline.com

Loveless Texas at the Sheen Center!

This review of Loveless Texas at The Sheen Center was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Loveless Texas
Music & Lyrics by Henry Aronson
Libretto & Direction by Cailin Heffernan
Scenic Design by Evan Hill
Costume Design by Cheryl McCarron
Lighting Design by Michael O'Connor
Sound Design by Ian Wehrle
Stage Managed by Marci Skolnick
The Sheen Center
18 Bleecker Street
New York, New York 10012
Reviewed 9/7/17

Loveless Texas took an interesting twist on Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost and made for a generally entertaining musical. For most of the first half of the play, the tension built and the songs, written and composed by Henry Aronson, were fun and often catchy. A few missteps in the script and final performance, however, kept this uplifting tale from reaching the level of a virtuoso.

The biggest issues with this modern restructuring of Shakespeare's classic were that it didn't take a big enough step away from the original in the over-arching plot. It became too predictable while creating too many subplots which became mired in unnecessary detail. Almost every character in the cast of twelve actors had their own arch. This not only limited the pace of the first act, but it bogged down the second act as well with corny serendipity. Long story short, all the characters fell in love with a counterpart from a competing ranch in 1930s Texas. One of the largest issues with this was the fact that almost every actor had a song to sing. While the lyrics, were in my opinion, clever, they were mostly songs about death and devils and love. Potentially quality subjects for a comedy, but even the cast members who could execute their material better than others heard only a little bit of laughter and appreciation from the audience. There are two possible reasons for this. The first being that it didn't seem like Loveless Texas focused on the comedy. It seemed to be much more focused on a tense relationship between the mature, "King Navarre," and his immature, younger brother, Berowne Navarre, and how the relationship between the two characters developed. The second was that the audience had to strain to hear many of the songs over a live band that performed in the corner. The live band was a welcome presence but it was a little too loud at times for the actors to overcome.

Awesome set at the Sheen Center.

Awesome set at the Sheen Center.

Despite these limitations, I still enjoyed this musical. I felt like Darren Ritchie as King and Joe Joseph as Berowne did a fabulous job. Their solid performances helped to create palpable tension as the two butted heads on life philosophy. King Navarre owned a ranch in Texas at the onset of the Great Depression and had promised to sell an oil-strike to a rancher in Louisiana named Leroy Beausoleil. Leroy had apparently come upon the information that the strike was about to hit pay-dirt while King Navarre believed it was about to run dry. Before the land was officially sold, the oil reserve boons and King Navarre refuses to sell. After tracking down his younger brother, Berowne, who had been causing trouble all over the continent and parts of Europe, King has Berowne and his two companions sign an agreement to work on his property under three conditions: no drinking, gambling, or womanizing. Berowne reluctantly agrees, but then suddenly takes the high road on the property issue arguing basically that all the moral authority in the world doesn't matter if King is not a man of his word. King points out that Berowne doesn't understand taking responsibility, and frankly, as a viewer, I was hooked.

King Navarre's plans are complicated when Leroy's daughter, LaReine Beausoleil (Trisha Jeffrey) arrives in Texas to attempt to claim her land accompanied by three women, friends of hers, who have some history with Berowne and his companions. Admittedly, things move a little too fast here as love is in the air. The characters on King's ranch are all men, and they quite quickly find counterparts on the Louisiana side to fall in love with including the stodgy, woman-scorned King Navarre, who falls in love with LaReine after barely a word passing between them. King (Darren Ritchie) sings an intriguing solo number about choosing between business and his heart, and as the first act closes, he makes his choice - business - by interrupting the other lovebirds during the most comedic sequence of the play, a local dance that Berowne and his companions sneaked off to in bad disguises so that they could check in on their women. As this confrontation comes to a close, LaReine learns her father has died. King attempts an apology, but LaReine and her party leave for Louisiana immediately.

The build-up went for naught as the remainder of the play becomes song after song wrapping up the subplots. The main important part of this second act comes when Berowne and King argue in song about a compromise Berowne suggests. It is unclear what King will choose, but later, at a wedding between Duke Dumaine (one of Berowne's companions, Colin Barkell) and Kathy Bridge (one of LaReine's, Annette Navarro), King surprises everyone by offering the full deal to Berowne. At the wedding, everyone finds their love except for Berowne and Rosaline. For some reason, Rosaline is miffed after not receiving a formal response to a letter she wrote pleading for Berowne to stand up to his brother. He stood up to his brother, but apparently, she needed that in writing. A year later, she holds up his poker game disguised as a seldom mentioned minor character who goes by the name of the Cowgirl Bandit. When she reveals her identity, the two sing to each other about their love in a lovely duet. Amanda Lea Lavergne as Rosaline was one of the brightest spots of the cast along with Bligh Voth as Maria Broussard

Ultimately, the happy ending and the positive messages in the songs made for an enjoyable show. The expectations seemed to be very high based on the subject matter, and the high quality of the set design and costumes. Not to mention the inclusion of a live band. However, even from the third row, the difficulty in making out all the lines in each song became a serious concern. I'd suggest focusing the plot on the four main characters and cutting solo numbers by side characters that didn't greatly affect the dynamic of the play. Regardless, the show remained a pleasure to watch. For tickets ($30 for September 6-10 and $40 for September 12-24), go tohttps://sheencenter.org/shows/loveless/ or call 212-925-2812. 

King Lear at the Secret Theatre

This review of King Lear at The Secret Theatre was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Alberto Bonilla
The Secret Theatre
44-02 23rd Street
Long Island City, New York 11101
Reviewed 3/25/17

The Secret Theatre is a custom built theatre and rehearsal rooms facility in the heart of Long Island City's artists' quarter. The place feels brand new and well-kept despite being around since 2007. It has a long history of performing Shakespeare's plays. Despite the nice aesthetics, the seating is a little close together and isn't all that soft after a few hours of sitting. However, it is very easy to see the production and there is no separation between the front row and the stage, which probably influenced the decision of the director to use stage knives instead of swords making for some interesting takes on the classic fight scenes.

King Lear has been regarded as one of Shakespeare's supreme achievements. Originally drafted in 1605/1606, it has been produced regularly throughout the centuries with some modifications. The play follows the descent of King Lear as his actions in response to his various daughters slowly precipitate the gradual losing of his mind. The happy kingdom, as quoted by Richard Mazda as the Earl of Gloucester, may have "seen the best of times" but domestic insurrection and internal conflict will follow King Lear's decision to disinherit his youngest and most precious daughter Cordelia (Meggy Hai Trang) for her unwillingness or inability to explain to her father the nature of the "pure love" she holds for him. Her older sisters, Goneril (Elizabeth A. Davis) and Regan (Melissa Macleod), heap praise upon their father only to undermine and plot against him later. With no inheritance, the Duke of Burgundy has no interest in marrying Cordelia, while the King Of France promises himself to her and views her as a sincere person who is praiseworthy. The King of France isn't the only one to call King Lear's actions into question. The "noble" Earl of Kent (Arthur Lazalde) also attempts to defend Cordelia only to find himself banished from the kingdom.

King Lear at the Secret Theatre

King Lear at the Secret Theatre

Goneril and Regan's disingenuous statements and subsequent betrayals of their father eventually drive King Lear to the brink of madness. Goneril, the King's eldest daughter, becomes frustrated with the King's entourage and publicly rebukes him. Oswald, her steward, blatantly shows him disrespect, which angers him greatly. One suspects Goneril might take her father's life if her entourage was ever larger than his. When the King appeals to Regan, his middle daughter, for help, she sides with her sister suggesting the King reduce the size of his personal forces to nothing. This, combined with Regan's mistreatment of the King's messenger results in him storming off into the woods during a terrible thunderstorm with no one by his side but his Fool (Jack Herholdt). King Lear rebukes the gods for turning his daughters against him. The Earl of Kent offers his help to Cordelia, who has arrived at Dover with an army from France intent on returning King Lear to power over his daughters, Goneril and Regan, who have overstepped their bounds. Fearful the elder daughters plan to assassinate the King, the Earl of Gloucester sends him to Dover to meet up with the French army and Cordelia.

Meanwhile, Edmund (Zachary Clark), the Earl of Gloucester's illegitimate son, first manipulates his father into turning against Edgar (Nick Chris), his brother, and then betrays his father to the Duke of Cornwall (Regan's husband). In the ensuing confrontation between the Duke of Cornwall and the Earl of Gloucester, the Duke is mortally wounded by his own servant who tries to prevent the complete blinding of Gloucester, who sets off on the road to Dover. Edmund, now Earl in his father's place, uses this opening to turn Goneril and Regan against each other and to further enhance his position and power. When the English capture Cordelia and King Lear during the defeat of the French, he plans to have both the King and Cordelia killed. Fortunately, Edgar discovers his blind father on the road to Dover, and when Oswald appears with instructions to kill Gloucester, Edgar saves his father's life. Also on Oswald is a letter from Goneril to Edmund asking him to kill her husband, the Duke of Albany.

The play wraps up where it began, in the King's court. Edgar arrives just after the capture of Lear and Cordelia. He appears in disguise and defeats Edmund in a duel to the death. During this same scene, Goneril poisons Regan and then, when confronted by the Duke of Albany with the letter Edgar found, she commits suicide. As Edmund dies, he confesses to having planned assassinations of Lear and Cordelia that same day. Albany and Edgar rush to the rescue but they are too late. The play ends with King Lear returning to the stage with the body of Cordelia (In some Shakespeare's editions, either the Duke of Albany or Edgar become King). 

The casting was really well done for this play. Zachary Clark, who played Edmund, was a standout performer who brought much energy to the part. Arthur Lazalde as the Earl of Kent delivered some of the few comedic lines in this generally dark play. The extremely talented Jack Herholdt appeared as the Fool (the King's constant companion)  and Elizabeth A. Davis was particularly impressive in the lead female role. On the other hand, there were a few times it was hard to understand what was being said. Shakespeare's lines can be mouthfuls. At times, it was a little difficult to understand Austin Pendleton as King Lear. While he delivered some excellent monologues, he stumbled over more than a few lines. However, he acted the mad King at the end of the play with flair. 

In the Secret Theatre's production of King Lear, modern songs are used to accompany certain scenes, especially during Poor Tom's parts (Poor Tom was Edgar's disguise after being shunned by his father). Most of Poor Tom's original dialogue was a hodgepodge of popular lyrics from Shakespeare's heydey. In this production, the action is framed as a recollection occurring within the mind of King Lear, now a hospitalized, dying man. I think these adaptations, along with stage props and lighting, created a cool and eerie atmosphere that made the personal descent of the King into madness more pronounced. 

Go see this Shakespearean Tragedy at The Secret Theatre! It is wonderfully done and offers one of the best examples of Tragedy you will ever see. King Lear runs almost every night (except Mondays and Tuesdays) between March 23rd and April 9th. Tickets can be reserved for $18.00 ($20.00 at the door) on their website at http://www.secrettheatre.com 

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