Posts tagged: writing tips

Getting Organized

by Kitty Felde

      It all started when I missed an appointment.

These days, I produce a podcast called the Book Club for Kids. A trio of middle graders discuss a novel, there’s an interview with the author and a reading from the book by a “celebrity.”

Last month, I blew it. I was a no-show at a scheduled taping. More than a dozen young readers were waiting for me that Sunday afternoon and I stood them up.

I could use the excuse that I was jet lagged, arriving after midnight the night before from a cross-country flight. Or I could plead that Sundays I take a tech Sabbath, not looking at my phone – and its calendar – at all. But excuses didn’t make any difference to the dozen or so disappointed young readers awaiting their chance at podcast stardom…and their angry parents who’d driven for miles to get their kids to the bookstore for the taping.

It was then that it became very clear that I needed to get organized.

I’m not the only one – particularly at this time of year. You can’t even go in to the Home Depot without stumbling over a display of 2018 calendars for sale. At Fed Ex, pickings were slim among the display of pretty, fat calendar books with floral motifs. Even my husband gets into the act every December, watching the mailbox for the one thing on which he spends an absurd amount of money: the new filler for his portable paper calendar book.

Then I stumbled across Bullet Journals. There’s an enormous cult following for “BuJo” as the aficionados call them. Invented by a digital designer named Ryder Carroll, Bullet Journals seem to have captured the imagination.

The basic idea is simple: a blankish book and a variety of colored pens and perhaps a ruler are all it takes. I say blankish because “BuJos” prefer blank pages with dots that they can use as grid makers to create weekly or monthly pages full of “things to do” lists and food diaries and weather reports and words of the day.

Things get more extravagant after that.

Some “BuJos” fight on social media about page thickness and the bleed level of pens. They proudly show off their collection of highlighter pens. (Who knew there was a gray highlighter pen?) There’s a debate about whether stickers are appropriate. I counted eight different groups on Facebook devoted to Bullet Journals, including the Minimalist Bullet Journal group that still seems overly complicated to me. Pinterest, as you can imagine, has hundreds of pictures of Bullet Journals.

Buzz Feed has an article to tell you what your style of Bullet Journaling says about you. I realized my style says I am not a Bullet Journaling kind of girl. I can’t draw. I never scrapbooked in my life. And why would I spend hours drawing in the dates of a 2018 calendar when I can get a perfectly good one at any store in America?

I think the BuJo serves the same purpose for visual people as my Morning Pages do for a word person like me. Julia Cameron’s classic “Artist’s Way” assignment has always helped me untangle my disorganized brain. Sitting down first thing in the morning to scribble away for three pages in a cheap composition book – part diary, part writing ideas, mostly things to do lists – grounds me and helps me sort out what’s important in my life and what to let go. Obviously it wasn’t enough to keep me from missing an important appointment.

So I bought a nice, light paper calendar that fits in my handbag. I’ve started marking it up with travel plans and podcast tapings. More important, I vowed to look at it every day. Even on my tech Sabbath.

What about you? How do you keep organized? Please share your secret!

Jump Start Creativity

By Kitty Felde

Sometimes facing a blank page on your laptop can be the most depressing sight on planet earth.

Nobody said playwriting was going to be easy. But the email rejections, the harsh feedback from your writing group, the statistics on the tiny number of new plays that get produced every year (and the even smaller number by female playwrights not named Lauren Gunderson) can just shut you down. Or, as I put it, take the heart out of the writing.

How do you get your mojo back?

 

I had the pleasure of interviewing writer Laurel Snyder whose middle grade novel “Orphan Island” is a very odd book – orphan kids on a desert island who come as toddlers and depart as teenagers to parts unknown. Needless to say, it’s not like anything else Laurel has previously written.

She says the book started as her own prescription for writers block. She was stuck in the “business” of writing and forgot about the joy. So she bought herself some toys – markers and paint and notebooks and her favorite mechanical pencil. She vowed to write the entire project in longhand and take the time to illustrate the characters. She drew islands and maps. She drew animals that didn’t exist that didn’t make it into the book. She had fun – the same fun she felt when she started writing when she was eight years old.

She promised herself that she wouldn’t show the project to anyone until it was done and if it didn’t get published, that would be okay, too. She would write a book just for herself.

Laurel got back in touch with the reason she started writing in the first place. She was writing out – putting on paper something inside of her that needed to get out in the world. In the process, she rediscovered the joy.

And of course, the book she created was so unique, it made the longlist for the National Book Award.

We’re not guaranteed such a reward of public recognition, but we can at least make the journey more enjoyable. Slow down. Buy a fabulous red gel pen with sparkles for the editing process. Find some fun stickers and reward yourself when you put down 500 words. Take yourself out for an outrageously fattening Toasted White Chocolate Mocha at Starbucks when you’ve written every day for a week. Give yourself permission to watch hours of Hallmark Christmas movies. Find a way to make the writing fun again.

And share YOUR secrets with us.

You can hear the whole interview with Laurel Snyder here. You can even hear kids dissect the book on this episode.

My D-bag Writing Partners

by Korama Danquah

I hate my writing partners.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Oh my goodness! Korama! That sounds like a personal problem that you and your writing partners should discuss together.” Ordinarily you would be right. I’m an adult(ish type person) who likes to handle my problems in a (mostly) adult way. Talking to my writing partners would be the adult way to handle any issues. Except that they aren’t just my writing partners – they’re your writing partners too.

“What?” you just exclaimed “I don’t have any writing partners.” Or perhaps you wondered “Why does Korama think Lewis and Clark are d-bags?” (Side note: This imaginary conversation thing is really amusing to me) The particular writing partners I’m talking about are not of the human variety, but the nagging-voice-in-the-back-of-your-head variety; I’m talking about self-doubt and insecurity.

Everyone has self-doubt and insecurity in varying degrees, but the effects are most felt by people who do creative work. You can doubt yourself when you do a spreadsheet, but at the end of the day the spreadsheet reflects facts and figures, not your thoughts and feelings.

I have a particularly hard time with these silent partners – maybe it’s because, despite the fact that I consider myself a creative person, I am most comfortable with facts and figures. I am very clear with right and wrong, black and white, good and bad. Subjectivity scares me. I start to doubt that what I am doing is good or worth anything at all, like Semele started to doubt what she previously knew to be true.

For those of you who need a refresher, Semele was one of Zeus’ many lovers (not to slut-shame him, but good god, who wasn’t one of his lovers?). Hera, jealous of her husband’s human lover (who was pregnant with Dionysus the god of theatre!), disguises herself as an old woman, befriends Semele and convinces Semele to confide in Hera/Old Human Lady that she is banging Zeus. Hera then plants seeds of doubt in Semele’s head. She asks her how she can know it’s truly Zeus if she hasn’t seen him in his godlike form. On the one hand, that’s a valid point because dudes could totally be walking around pretending to be Zeus in an effort to bed women. On the other hand, douche move on Hera’s part because she knew exactly what would happen next. Semele asked Zeus for a favor and he promised, no swore, he would do whatever it was. She asked to see him in his divine form. Zeus reluctantly agreed and obviously seeing him in his true form killed her.

The story has several morals, the strongest of which is that doubt will literally kill you.

It’s hard not to succumb to self-doubt and insecurity – they are strong opponents. What I do these days is remind myself that I’m stronger. I’m not Semele or Hera or Zeus, at least not completely. I have a little bit of all of them: Semele’s humanity, Hera’s ingenuity, Zeus’ strength. All of these things are what makes me, and my writing, special and unique.

It’s easy to get comfortable with the right/wrong, good/bad dichotomies of this world, but if everything is one thing or another it loses part of its rarity. Walt Whitman once said “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes)” To allow yourself to exist in the spaces between black and white, to contradict yourself at turns, is to contain multitudinous, enormous beauty. I won’t allow doubt and insecurity to squash that, to make my work ugly with fear.

So screw you, writing partners. I’m working on my own from now on.

What I Learned About My Writing From A 6 Year Old

by Korama Danquah

Yesterday evening I found a surprise when I walked into my gym’s locker room: a six year-old girl. There were other adults around who seemed to be unconcerned with her presence, so I went with it and said hello. I jokingly asked her if she was there to work out and she told me very matter-of-factly “No, I’m waiting for my Mommy.”

I like kids a lot, so I talked to her as we both waited for the class currently in session to finish. We talked about all sorts of things: birthdays (mine had recently happened and hers is today), our favorite Disney princesses, and her recent trip to Legoland. She was a very polite and talkative young girl. What struck me most about her is the fact that she was an endless font of questions. It started off with my asking my name, guessing (fairly accurately) how old I was, and when my birthday was. But then she began to ask more and more questions: Why do you wear glasses? I have an astigmatism. What’s an astigmatism? It means a part of my eye, called the cornea isn’t shaped right, so my vision is a little blurry. What should it be shaped like? It’s supposed to be round like a basketball, but mine is shaped more like a football. What’s that thing? My asthma medication. What does it taste like? Medicine. Yeah, but what flavor of medicine? And on and on.

A fairly accurate representation of her side of our conversation

 

I wasn’t bothered by her questions. Quite the opposite, actually. I enjoyed conversing with her very much and was sad when her mother came to get her (and not just because it meant that I was about to do what felt like 1,000 burpees). She was fun and engaging in a way that I find adults often aren’t when you first meet them.

Adulthood!

When I was driving home, I realized that I could stand to be a bit more like this little girl I met in my writing. I’m not asking enough questions. Months ago, I started writing a science fiction play called The Fortinian Orbs, but I abandoned it when it started to get difficult for me to continue writing. After my conversation yesterday, I realized that it was only hard because I wasn’t asking myself enough questions; the few questions I was asking, I wouldn’t keep asking until I got the right answer. When I told her that my inhaler tasted like medicine, she kept asking until I gave her an answer she thought was acceptable. There are a hundred different ways medicine tastes and even she knew I was giving a half-assed answer.

I’m going to pick up where I left off with The Fortinian Orbs, ask myself more questions, and give myself more answers. It’s OK if some of the answers are dumb – I’ll just keep asking until I can come up with better ones. And for those of you wondering, my inhaler tastes like chemicals and water that’s been in a plastic bottle in a hot car for too long.

I hear music and there’s no one there

Do you have a playlist for your current writing project? I usually write in silence, occasionally distracted by the hum of the refrigerator or the shriek of the little girl down the hall or the meow of my very needy cat. But I remember when I was really cooking, working my way through fourteen drafts (!) of an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol short stories, I was listening to a lot of music. I auditioned a lot of genres, trying to find exactly the right composer and style to suit what I was working on. Luckily, a CD from Ego Plum, the marvelously talented composer hired by the Rogues to compose music for our “Gogol Project” arrived. It set the perfect mood.

It was reassuring somehow to discover that I wasn’t the only writer in need of musical inspiration. At the end of his Roman Empire/Camelot adventure novel “The Last Legion, Italian novelist Valerio Massimo Manfredi gave a nod to composer Paolo Buonvino, citing his lush soundtracks as his constant companion. After reading that, I immediately sought out Buonvino and was carried away to that romantic Italy that lives in our dreams.

My Omaha writing buddy Ellen is married to a musician and always finds interesting music to inspire her writing. She’s tackling a historic subject in anything but a traditional way and is listening to the recent Pulitzer winner for composition Caroline Shaw and a Native American group called A Tribe Called Red. The music is edgy and interesting and challenges her to get out of her comfort zone.

Me? I was stumped for a soundtrack for the romantic comedy I’m fighting with. I tried piano solos, Erik Satie, Tony Bennett (whatever did we do before Pandora?) Not perfect.

And then I remembered – duh – one of my characters sings show tunes. He explains in a monologue that he’d grown up listening to every Broadway album his mother owned. And there were a lot. His guilty pleasure as an adult was to once a month to leave the political realities of Capitol Hill behind and join the Washington theatre community, standing around a piano in an elegant hotel bar, belting out show tunes. Karaoke for nerds.

I knew his taste exactly: “If Ever I Would Leave You” from “Camelot” and “Into the Fire” from “The Scarlett Pimpernel.” Big, robust, hopelessly romantic from another era. Just describing his taste in music helps me define him more clearly.

And so I’ve been listening to Broadway musicals as I write. But only ones I know so well that I don’t have to listen carefully to hear the lyrics. Songs that are firmly implanted in the back of my brain – just as they are for my main character. They provide the drama and the fortitude and the color in his life. And they’re playing the same role for me as I write “Statuary Hall.” But what’s on your playlist? What soundtrack do you use to write your plays?

Taking the new car out for a drive

It’s like that first ding in a new car.
It’s all shiny and perfect, those first few scenes of a new play. At least inside your head. Oh, the laughs it gets! How the characters jump off the page. What a clever girl I am.
And then you get that first ding, that hint of criticism. And the bloom is off the rose. The car just isn’t new again. And the play isn’t perfect.
I hate this part of writing – exposing pages that in your heart of hearts you KNOW has flaws. But you’re so in love with it, you can hardly wait to share it with others, confident they’ll love it as much as you do. But they don’t. They see the flaws you blind yourself to see. And they have the nerve to tell you.
I brought 30 fat pages of my newest play – a romantic comedy because I’m tired of writing “serious” plays – into my monthly writing group. (A note about this monthly approach: It’s hard to establish a rhythm when you only meet every month. I much prefer my weekly Skype writing partner for continuous feedback and a weekly deadline for pages.) I was the last to read. There was silence around the table. (I should have prepared questions I wanted the group to answer!) And then our fearless leader asked the question about the king’s clothes: what’s the play about? What’s at stake? Ouch.
It was enough to inspire me to walk the 2 ½ miles home. In the rain. And eat several Trader Joe’s dark chocolate sea salt caramels. And become fearful of even looking at the script again.
At least until today.
It’s still a good car, er, play. It’s just not perfect. But a little polish and TLC and it will still get me where I want to go.

Gearing up for a new play, part 5: Finding the time and the space to write

So I’ve vacated our 800 square foot coop, an agreement I have with my writer husband. There’s something about having two writers in the house at the same time: as if the other person is sucking all the creative energy out of the place. We both feel it. And so we agree to give the other person some solo time at home.

Today’s my day to clear out.

One advantage to living in DC, you can jump on the bus and in five minutes find yourself surrounded by Smithsonians and other museums.

I began the day at the Hirshhorn. There’s a terrific room on the third floor, wall to wall windows, electrical plugs, comfy chairs. Except they’re hosting some sort of event tonight (museums are forever hosting events here!) and closed off what I call “the writing room.”

Plan B involved snagging one of the small metal tables and chairs in the lobby. Noisy, but somehow reassuring to be surrounded by strangers and cacophony. I happily spent a couple of hours pounding out a script for work.

And then I was starved.

So I hiked a block and a half to the Smithsonian Castle Cafe for Mexican hot chocolate and a banana and am going to try to work on my script.

Yesterday was a good day. Why not today?

It’s so hard to find a regular schedule. And good places to write. I’m always appreciative of great tips. Do you write before or after the day job? Where?

One DC writer, DW Gregory, says she’s a binge writer, scribbling great amounts at a time blocked out for nothing else. I know that won’t work for me. I’m too easily distracted.

Suggestions, please?

Progress!

One of the cleverest pieces of advice I ever saw for writers was aimed at those brave souls who crank out the first draft of a novel in one month.
http://www.nanowrimo.org/
The advice was to have a “bible” nearby. Not THE bible. YOUR bible. In other words, the writer who inspires you, the book you wish you’d written, the book you read over and over again.

The idea was that when you got stuck – had a question about style or pace or dialogue – you could turn to your “bible” for answers.

I’ve decided to do this for my new play.

I’m actually keeping two “bibles” nearby. One is a book I love and find full of wonderfully funny dialogue. In fact, I’m going to write a modern version of it.

The other is a basic book on playwriting.

Admit it, you have a few on your shelf. I randomly flip through a few, hoping one will strike a note with me at this time in my writing career. It’s a reminder of all the things we already know about building characters and dramatic structure and how hard it is to write. But it’s a nice reminder that I’m not reinventing the wheel.

So this morning before starting work, I set out for a short walk down to the waterfront, read a little from each of my “bibles” and wrote three pages of morning pages. Mostly lists of the hundred and one things I could be doing instead of writing. A wasted morning.

I then put in a days’ work.

And just as I was about to kick myself for wasting my life, imagining I’m a playwright, as the sun was setting, I sat down one more time. And managed to write five first draft pages! It’s not brilliant, but it’s more than I’ve been able to pound out in weeks.

So, success!

At least for today. Check in again with me tomorrow.

The Dog Days

Maybe it’s the week of 90 degree weather and 90% humidity here in DC (the days when I REALLY miss Southern California!!!) Or maybe it was the discouraging feedback from the play that’s been haunting me for the past ten years (and appears to continue to do so…) But writing-wise, I’m in the dumps.

Have you been there? The feeling that you have nothing new or worthwhile to add to the library of theatre literature. That your puny efforts don’t amount to a hill of beans. That even if you were to whip out a brilliant drama or boffo comedy, nobody would produce it anyway.

Welcome to my current world.

It’s not that there’s any proof to my belief that I’m an awful writer that will never be produced. I actually wrote a five page play that actually got a reading on a major DC stage (Theater J) two weeks ago. And it looks like the one-woman show ALICE will be revived in DC this fall. And my one commission (okay, my first commission – how’s that for positive) GOGOL PROJECT is being revived next year by the wonderful Rogue Artists Ensemble. And there’s interest in my kids play THE LUCKIEST GIRL.

But it’s a discouraging life we lead as playwrights. Plays need to be seen and heard to truly come alive, unlike novels or short stories. We need to be alone to write, but we need that community of other theatre artists to share our work with the world. And when we’re alone, that negative voice in our heads keeps talking to us, discouraging us from writing, from sending out a script, from even thinking about a new play.

That’s the dog days. And for me, that’s where I am right now.

This week, I’ll share some motivational thoughts from smarter people than me about getting through these lousy, hot, depressing days. Please share yours.

Dig that out of the trash can

I can’t recall who said it originally or who it was that repeated it to me, but some wise writer once said you’re not allowed to throw out bad writing until you’ve shared it with someone else.
We’re our own worst critics, snarky and nit picky, embarrassed by our work, hiding it until we think it’s properly “cooked” and ready to serve to an audience. Even if that audience is your own writing group.
I’ve finally found a wonderful group of writers here in DC and our “assignment” was to bring in the final scene of the play we’re working on. Even if you haven’t written a word for any other scene in the play. I’ve been struggling with my LA riots play for ten years now. It haunts me. And since this spring marks the 20th anniversary, I know I’ve got to finish it. So I gave a stab to the assignment, trying to write that scene that I’ve been avoiding forever.
It was awful. Hide your face in a paper bag awful. Repeated sentences, facts out of order, wierd entrances, and worst of all, no resolution. I knew it was awful and spent weeks trying to “fix” it. Finally, I decided to stop looking at it and just not bring anything in to my group. Chicken!
But Sunday morning, I asked myself what I had to lose? This was a new group of people. If they thought ill of me and my work, did it really matter? Would they tell the whole town what a lousy writer I was?
I printed out the pages, handed them out, and confessed I hadn’t really completed the assignment. The scene was a problem. So there.
Listening to it read out loud, I could see where my fellow writers were interested, confused, amused. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. And those generous writers put their clever heads together and offered me a way out of my conundrum. It wasn’t one last scene, it was a series of scenes trying to squeeze into that last scene. Let it breathe.
But most of all, their enthusiasm for this badly written piece of work, wanting to know the characters, the rest of the story, helped me regain my confidence about the work. It wasn’t awful. Just a work in progress.
So my advice for the day: courage fellow writers. Be brave enough to share the rotten work with people you trust. There may be seeds there that can grow into something even more wonderful than you imagined it in the first place.

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