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Oct 11

How to Dominate at Submission

Okay, I really need to get back to actual playwriting soon (it’s been weeks since finishing Uncharted Zones), but I just finished up a month of submission ‘binging’ – sending out as many subs to contests and theatres as I could, and I thought this would be a good time to share a few disorganized notes on the art of submission. Some of this you may know, a lot of it may seem like common sense, but thanks to Monkeyman I’ve got a little bit of experience from both sides now, and I know these things can’t be said often enough. Besides, it gives me an excuse to type ‘submission’ a bunch of times in a post my mother could actually read. ;)

These aren’t in any particular order, unless I’ve been watching too much Sherlock (the BBC, of course) and start looking for patterns within the very randomness:

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You’re going to notice, as you start browsing playwriting contests and the submission policies of theatres you take a fancy to, that there are often quite a few tedious, often contradictory from one venue to the next, intricate lists of rules and guidelines as to exactly what they will and won’t take. This can have to do with format (though there is a fairly standard playwriting format, and you should know it by now), cast breakdown, theme, citizenship of the playwright, font size, file type accepted, and on and on and on. It can be a little bit annoying, frankly. I’ve had to reformat a script five or six different ways to submit to a half-dozen contests, and you really wonder why they can’t all just try to get along.

But … you gotta do it. You gotta do it because, and here I’m gonna separate the true geeks from the day players, most theatres that bother to have those kind of guidelines are real rules lawyers. They make these rules not because they necessarily make sense, but because it shows them you were paying attention. That’s my theory anyway, and I’ve never seen any real proof otherwise. They make long lists of guidelines so that they can automatically weed out some of the massive crop of submissions they’re provided with because you didn’t use Times New Roman or live within fifty miles of the Mason-Dixon Line. You can’t really blame them – it is quite often a truly massive crop, and they have to find some way to make it manageable – but what you must do is follow the rules religiously. Otherwise, you might as well not bother sending your play in the first place.

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And while I do show a bit of disdain for the lengths some of these theatres go to in establishing their rules, there are a couple of things you should be paying close attention to even without their narrowing the borders. The first I’ll mention is running time. You need to learn to properly estimate the running time of your script. Don’t just hope the actors can read your fifteen-page play in under ten minutes (and they can’t, unless you’ve broken the formatting rules I mentioned above, or it’s a really unusual play) – you need to know how long each script you’re submitting runs. There are guidelines to estimating this sort of thing – I was taught a page equals about one and one-third minutes, I’ve heard a lot of people say a page equals a minute flat – but you should really be taking the time to read it out yourself (with appropriate pauses where you’ve got action that would take significant time) and keeping track of the start and end time. You should be reading out loud anyway – I’ve never known a good playwright who didn’t – so you might as well time yourself while you’re reading.

And of course, then you should submit to contests / theatres looking for scripts at the appropriate length. Don’t be one of those incredibly annoying writers who believes their play is such a special little snowflake that it should be considered even though it runs twenty-five minutes too long. You’re not that good.

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Similarly, pay attention to theme. If a contest is organized around a particular theme, don’t just shoot off anything you happen to have prepped and ready. Make sure it actually fits what they’re looking for. If you’re submitting to a theatre’s general call for submissions, look for their mission statement and try to get some idea of what might suit them. You’re not going to convince that social reform theatre that they should stage your adaptation of Goodfellas, and all you’re going to do by sending it anyway is to make it less likely they’ll pay attention if you have something later on that might actually be suitable. This isn’t a very big field, really – you can get a bad reputation pretty quickly if you insist on submitting play after play that has absolutely no connection at all with what a theatre’s looking for. There are already a couple of people who have sent multiple submissions to Monkeyman that I don’t even bother to open at this point, because they’ve taken no interest at all in what we want to put on stage. And conversely, proving that you’ve actually taken the time to learn about a theatre and their reasons for being before you toss a play in their direction gives you a much better chance of at least being given a quick look-see.

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Spell check and proofread before submitting. Go; do it now. If you’re not sure, do it again, or ask someone else for help. But don’t send a piece out until it’s been checked by someone with a decent grasp of spelling and grammar.

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Save everything. Use an email service that archives everything (Gmail is working just dandy for me) and has a good solid search feature. You’re going to wind up needing that four-sentence summary or Author’s Bio again, and there’s no need to keep re-inventing the Wonder Wheel.

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Track your submissions, including the script version you’ve submitted. (Yes, you should be saving incremental versions of your scripts. It’ll save your ass some day.) Excel is nice, but OpenOffice can handle spreadsheets just fine, as can Google Docs. Not only will it keep you from wondering (and having to do time-consuming searches) to see if you’ve already hit that theatre with a submission recently, it’ll let you know where you might want to contact again if you do a revision, or have something else in the same vein seeking a production.

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I suppose part of the reason you may want to track submissions is to know when it’s worth following up … but to be honest, it’s rarely worth following up. A lot of theatres just never respond, you’ll have to get used to that – and some literally take years to respond and see no problem with the system they’ve set up. Unless you’ve submitted somewhere that was so amazing a fit that you can’t live without an absolute yes or no, just let it go. Either the theatre doesn’t bother to respond to every script they’re sent, or they haven’t gotten around to reading it yet … but it’s so rare that it’s just fallen through the cracks somewhere in the process that you’re better off looking forward to the next opportunity instead.

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If you do hear back from a theatre, and it in any way sounds like a personal note of encouragement (even if the script was rejected completely), take that support for the rare and wonderful thing it is. If you get notes, don’t necessarily feel like you have to take them – but appreciate the effort the theatre put into it. These things don’t happen often, and if they’re happening for you there’s something in your work that connected – and at the very least, it means they’re more likely to remember your name next time around.

And if they say you should submit again, do it. Hell, even if it is a canned response, there’s a reason they chose to word things that way and it’s likely there’s a good person somewhere behind those cut-and-pasted words who actually likes playwrights (you’d be surprised how many theatres come off as feeling just the opposite). Those are the places you want to try to crack again.

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Submission fees. There are going to be some contests, and even a few theatres, that ask for a submission fee when you send them your script. This is a touchy subject among the playwriting circles I frequent, and at some point I’ll probably write a full entry detailing my feelings on the matter. For now, all I’d say is – what are you getting for that money? Is there a guarantee of feedback from the theatre? Is there a chance at prize money, or a percentage of the door? What value are you getting for sending them a cheque?

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As I look back over these notes, I’m starting to feel a little bit like McCoy in “Encounter at Farpoint.” Am I really that irritable when it comes to talking about the process of submission? I hope not; while it can be difficult to maintain your good cheer now and then, it’s also exciting to find new venues and new opportunities. I’m thrilled when I find a theatre doing just the same sort of work that I’m hoping to have produced, and I can’t wait to see what they think of my words.

There are endless possibilities in the universe for that script you’re ready to launch. You treat her like a lady. And she’ll always bring you home.

1 comment

  1. Linn

    Man, this should be required reading for all submitting playwrights. Not that the ones who don’t read the submission guidelines could be expected to read this… but you know what I mean. ;)

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