This past weekend I had a chance to participate in a chat session with comedy playwright Norm Foster and talk with him in person. Having written nearly forty plays, and with an average of about 150 productions of his work taking place every year across Canada, he’s the country’s most often produced playwright. Yet he didn’t begin writing plays until middle age—he hadn’t even seen a stage play until, on a lark, he got the lead acting role in an amateur production of “Harvey”. He had a twenty-five-year career in radio before becoming a full-time playwright, which tells me it’s never too late to pursue the dream of being a writer.
What does a writer of stage comedies have to do with writing science fiction? Clearly all writers can benefit from any insight into the creative process, especially from someone so successful in his field.
As a former radio morning show host (something I know a little about) Foster still gets up most days soon after 5:00 am and usually finishes his writing by noon. On a slow day he completes two or three pages, while a good day might produce seven, so he can complete a ninety-page script in two or three months. He claims the best advice he was ever given was to write every day. If he’s not working on a specific play, he’ll write character monologues for practice. Foster also sometimes works on two projects at the same time, because if he gets stuck on one he can switch to the other, although he admits that he rarely gets writer’s block. He also agrees with Hemingway’s advice that you should stop work for the day knowing exactly how you’ll pick it up again the next day.
Foster doesn’t begin the actual writing until he’s got the play planned out in his head, so he at least knows where it starts, where it’s going to go, and how it will end. He doesn’t picture specific actors as he writes, but he does have pictures of the characters in his head. He produces a few drafts, then ‘workshops’ the script (because he’s almost always writing for a given theatre, the cast will get together and read the script out loud). Another rewrite follows that, and once the play is finally produced, he’ll watch several performances to see what works and what doesn’t with a live audience. That leads him to one final revision, and then he never touches the play again. According to Norm Foster, one of the most important things a writer needs to know is when to stop. So with that in mind, I’ll close by saying, Norm Foster isn’t just a very funny writer and actor, he’s also an inspiration.