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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Writing Craft: Joy McCullough-Carranza on BLOOD/WATER/PAINT and plays vs. novels

Alex Highsmith: Joe Iano Photography

I am lucky to be blessed with wonderful critique partners. The women in my writing life are supportive, hilarious, well-read, and fiercely intelligent. Because of that, I wasn't a bit surprised when Joy McCullough-Carranza told me that the play she'd let me read a version of years ago (the play of her heart!) was going to be produced in Seattle. Joy writes middle grade and young adult fiction as well (she is repped by the fabulous agent Jim McCarthy), but plays are where she got her start.

Michael D. Blum: Joe Iano Photography
Many of my blog readers are writers of novels. As such, unless we get a movie deal along with a book deal, there is little chance of us ever seeing our characters come to life in person. For a writer, seeing your story unfold in front of your eyes has got to be magical. Joy has been kind enough to answer a few questions about that magic and about the creation process behind it.


BLOOD/WATER/PAINT is an unflinching retelling of the true story of Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter whose story unfolds through interactions with the women featured in her most famous paintings and the process of teaching her daughter to paint, and culminates in her fierce battle to rise above the most devastating event in her life and fight for justice despite horrific consequences.
*Photos scattered throughout this post may look like paintings, but they are all beautiful press photos created by Joe Iano*

Ana Maria Campoy, Alex Highsmith, Evelyn DeHais. Joe Iano Photography
What is the creation process and revision process for your plays, and how does that differ from how you create children’s novels?

I wrote plays for fifteen years before I switched to fiction, and when I did, I was overwhelmed by the sheer word count of novels. A full-length play is much shorter than even a middle grade manuscript—my play that’s being produced is under 12,000 words, for example. (It runs about an hour and a half, so even a three-hour monster of a play is only around 25K.) So the sheer word count of a novel was overwhelming and I needed to outline at least a few chapters at a time and think in terms of manageable steps to keep myself moving forward when writing fiction.

With plays, I don’t outline, and I definitely don’t think in terms of word count. (I had to check that word count of my play.) I do a lot of interweaving time periods and storylines in my plays, and it’s a kind of instinctual, rhythmic thing that I don’t think I could plan. Playwrights are more aware of page count, with the general rule that 1 page = 1 minute of stage time. But otherwise, the creative process is similar, even if the craft itself is quite different. And both share those lovely cycles of excitement, doubt, self-loathing, hope, etc. (And lots of rejections!)

Daniel Christensen & Alex Highsmith: Joe Iano Photography
Once I have a draft of a play that I feel really solid about—the point at which I would send a draft of a novel to you for critique, lovely CP—I usually get a group of actor friends together to read it aloud for me. Hearing it aloud teaches me things (I do read my novels aloud by myself, but that’s more for a micro-level polishing pass, whereas this early read of a play gets at bigger issues), and getting feedback from smart actors is hugely helpful. (I should say that having a play draft read aloud by anything less than wonderful, professional actors may not be all that helpful and in fact may be harmful. Teaching playwriting in high schools, I’ve heard really wonderful scenes sound absolutely terrible in the voices of untrained actors. And I suppose the reverse of that is true—I know some actors who can make even scenes that aren’t quite working sound great.)

What elements of your fiction writing are most influenced by your background as a playwright? And vice-versa, please.

I find dialogue super easy, and I’ve been told the voice in my fiction is strong, probably because even in third person, I sort of think of fiction as one giant monologue. My fiction is extremely spare in its description, since playwrights get to leave all that visual stuff to the director and designers, unless it’s super relevant to the plot.

Alex Highsmith and Annette Toutonghi: Joe Iano Photography
As for fiction influencing my playwriting, I can’t really say, since I haven’t written a brand new play since I started focusing on fiction. (The play being produced now pre-dates my fiction writing.) I am in the early stages of developing a new play, and I find myself thinking in terms of many more characters and settings than I should for a play, which is not like a novel in its ability to go to every setting and show every single relevant character who might intersect with the story.

Out with it: which is a more enjoyable process for you, writing novels or writing plays?

This is a really serious toss-up. For the last few years that I’ve been focused on fiction writing, I’ve thought it had to be the winner, for the obvious reason that I get to live in my Ravenclaw sweats and never leave my house. (Also, in all seriousness, the amazing community I’ve found among kid-lit writers puts some serious points in this column.)

But right now I’m in rehearsal for a play—and I should note that having a play in production is distinct from the process of sitting home and writing the play, but still—and I am reminded of how unparalleled the collaborative aspect of theater is.
Joy watching rehearsals: Joe Iano Photography
No one writes my plays for me, or even suggests what I should write. But when a playwright sits in a room and watches directors and actors work together through the scenes, there is so much to mine there. You can see when something just isn’t working, and whether it’s the fault of the script or not. Actors and directors talk about the characters and their backgrounds and their motivations and you get to steal from them and act like you totally meant that all along. And that’s to say nothing of what designers bring to the process. I’m not the tiniest bit visual (even though I’ve written a play about a painter) and it boggles the mind to see the emails between the designers and director go back and forth, trying to nail down exactly what the easel would look like in Baroque Italy, etc.

Annette Toutonghi: Joe Iano Photography
So…it’s hard to say. I haven’t sold a novel yet. When I have, it may be an easier comparison. Right now I’ve only had the experience of seeing my writing fully realized with plays, so I suppose my first love gets the win (for now).

Again, I'm so thrilled about BLOOD/WATER/PAINT and hope that if you live in the Seattle area, you'll be able to go see it!

SHOW LOCATION: Theatre Off Jackson
DATES & TIMES: February 20th – March 14th 2015

Thu-Sat @ 8pm, &  Monday, March 9th @ 8pm 

(Free Preview Thurs Feb 19th)


Joy McCullough-Carranza is a Seattle playwright with a degree in theater from Northwestern University, where she won the Agnes Nixon Playwriting Award for her play fifty cents in the dark. Other plays include After Midnight, Home/LandChasing MonarchsHiding Hannah, Blood/Water/Paint, Trapped, Mud Angel, and Watching for Wolves, and have been developed and produced in New York, Seattle, San Diego, and Chicago, at Manhattan Theatre Source, ACT Theatre, Washington Ensemble Theatre, Mirror Stage Company, Live Girls, the Mae West Fest, 14/48, Seattle Dramatists, Stage Left Theatre, New Village Arts, Lamb’s Players Theatre, and Northwestern University.  She has twice been a finalist for the Actors Theater of Louisville’s Heideman Award.


Annette Toutonghi: Joe Iano Photography

Daniel Christensen & Alex Highsmith: Joe Iano Photography

Alex Highsmith and Michael D. Blum: Joe Iano Photography

Ana Maria Campoy, Daniel Christensen, Michael D. Blum: Joe Iano Photography

Annette Toutonghi: Joe Iano Photography

Annette Toutonghi and Evelyn DeHais: Joe Iano Photography