Tag Archives: writing tips

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.


I was taught that Jon Jory was a god in the world of playwriting.  But I saw a lousy production of his adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” in Florida.  And the actors and director cannot take all the blame. 

Jory’s adaptation was way too literal – this happened, then this happened, then this happened.  The theatricality was mostly absent, except for borrowing the technique used in “Nicholas Nickleby” where prose is put in the mouths of characters and shared with the audience breaking the fourth wall. 

Now, I admit I’m a bit prejudiced myself on the topic of Jane Austen and “P&P.”  I’ve seen the 1995 BBC adaptation at least two dozen times and the various movie versions several times apiece.  But those were films.  This was theatre – or at least it was supposed to be.

I’m no expert on adaptation – though I did win the LA Drama Critics Circle Award for my adaptation of Nikolai Gogol short stories for the Rogues Artists Ensemble – but I do have some thoughts.  And I hope you’ll add to my list of what makes a good adaptation.

A work of theatre has to be theatrical.  There has to be a place where the page is left to lie there to gather dust and something bigger than life comes alive in front of an audience.  I don’t need Spiderman to fly across the stage (speaking of problems with adaptation) or a helicopter to land at the end of the second act.  A play should be dangerous.  And unpredictable.  Use the stage.

Someone will be disappointed.  It happens all the time in movie adaptations – something gets left out, characters get melded.  A playwright has to face those expectations an audience brings into a familiar work and be brave enough to disappoint some people.  Trying to please everyone creates bland work.

Jane Austen will not turn over in her grave.  We all want to honor the original work.  But why bother to do anything but retype the book in play format if you’re not willing to make it a bit of your own?  It’s an adaptation, not a literal translation.

That’s enough for now.  What’s on your list?

Writing Things Delightful

Don’t say it was delightful; make us say “Delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do the job for me? – C.S. Lewis

I am in love with this quote.  As a writer of often fantastical worlds, I am constantly striving to paint my script descriptively enough while still allowing plenty of play room for my imagined designers and directors… And yet, I’ve often tried to steer clear of using these “adjectives” of awe, for Lewis’s exact reason; I mean, what kind of author would I be were I to limit my own imagination with oft-used phrases like such, rather than diving deeper into the “meat” of such a statement?

For what is more exciting :  She wanders into a scary woods. OR  She wanders into a forest, black with night and alive with a chorus of things that go bump in the night.

I mean, it’s a slap-dash example, but you get my point.

I’m working with a bunch of youngsters right now who have written plays (some of them their first) as entrants in our inaugural Young Playwrights Festival.  It’s thrilling and frightening, and exhilaratingly difficult – the people wrangling, the ego tending, and the director guiding…  Because as a playwright and a less-than-a-handful-under-her-belt director, I’ve not yet had the privilege of coordinating anything quite of this scale.  Yet, here I am, at the center of things, and I find that the switching of shoes (from hungry playwright, to playwright wrangler) I’m going to bat for these kids like a proud mama bear!

And I’m jonesing to take them all under my wings and whisper C.S. Lewis quotes to their novice ears and help them unlock the magic of playwriting so that next year their plays are even more exciting, more daring… more delightful.

But until my class opens in the Spring, I’m simply going to go on collecting these lovely little bits of commentary from the “Greats” – collect them, hold them close to my heart, and sigh at the glow they carry within.

And I’m going to try not to go crazy as we enter the final two weeks before the festival itself goes up… in all her new-born glory!

A Writing Assignment

Kitty Felde – January 23, 2011

I work on Capitol Hill.  It’s a day job much like the theatre – lots of colorful characters and drama.  And mystery.

I’ve started collecting odd signs.  This one keeps haunting me…it sounds like the title of a play.  But I can’t imagine what it would be about.

So as I sign off this week, in the spirit of  leaving you with homework, I offer this sign as the title of the play you’ll never get around to writing.  Write a one paragraph synopsis – the annoying kind theatres keep demanding.  And this is your title:

The title of your next play

A Third Ear

Kitty Felde – January 22, 2011

It’s so helpful to have someone else read your work. 

I know that’s obvious, but I’m always surprised when I do share my plays with someone else.  They see things in it that even I did not.  And ask questions that either I’ve been avoiding or never thought of asking myself.

The challenging part is finding the right person and the right environment. 

We’ve all been in situations where the feedback for the playwright was less than helpful.  I attend lots of readings.  (Yes, I know it’s a theatre’s excuse NOT to fully produce new work…) It’s helpful to me as a playwright to hear how someone else is tackling a problem and getting themselves out of it.  Or not.  And it’s easier for me to look objectively at THEIR work and see what needs to be done.   I’m rarely shy about sharing what I think is a helpful observation.

But I cringe in a feedback session when an audience member gushes, “don’t change a thing!”  Few plays don’t need a thing changed.  That kind of feedback is almost worse than a critique.

The hard part is listening with an objective ear.  And discarding most of what you’ve heard.  Those few nuggets that ring true are the ones to hold on to. 

But perhaps the most valuable third ear is that of a trusted dramaturg, director, or fellow playwright.  Not too many of them.  Too many voices can confuse and cause you to shut down completely.  But find the ones you trust.  

I miss my LA playwriting group, which was my group of third ears.  I haven’t yet found a group here in DC.  But my weekly Skype meetings with Omaha playwright Ellen Struve are my lifeline.  She sees things I have missed and asks questions I hadn’t thought of.  And she knows when to leave it alone until I can figure it out for myself. 

Do you have a trusted third ear?

A Dream of a Play

Kitty Felde – January 20, 2011

Have you ever dreamed about writing a fabulous play?  Usually such dreams involve a Tony or a string of productions or actors like Alec Baldwin and Colin Firth fighting to play roles in your work. 

But do we ever dream about the actual WRITING of a play? 

I did.

Of course, I can’t remember most of it.  But even in my sleeping state, I knew that I’d forget 99% of the wonderful plot devices, character development, sparkling dialogue, etc, etc.  So I kept telling myself in my dream to remember one thing.  Just one thing.  And when I woke up, that one thing is all I remembered.  It boiled down to two words: vegetable juggling.  Which actually meant something to me and made its way into a scene I was writing.

It’s the only time I’ve ever had this experience.  How about you?  Have you found a way to tap into your subconscious?  Tips, please!

Act Two, Scene Four

Kitty Felde – January 19, 2011

One other thought about writing this ‘trick myself into writing something’ play.  I’ve decided to try some of the techniques I admire in other plays but never employ in my own. 

I rail against ‘kitchen sink dramas’ all the time and crave a real theatrical experience.  But how often do I write them myself?  Not often enough.

Since this children’s play I’m writing “doesn’t really matter” (that’s what I keep telling myself to stop putting pressure on myself to make it FABULOUS) I can experiment, get outside my comfort zone. 

So here are my rules:

Simplify.  I’m always writing large cast pieces with complicated plots.  For this piece, I’ve decided to simplify the play at its core: it’s the story of a relationship between a girl and her grandmother.  All other characters come and go. 

Well, that was the first thought.  Now a best friend has cropped up for the girl and he’s threatening to become a more fully realized character.  But okay.  Everybody ELSE comes and goes.

Dare to offend.  I’m fairly polite and probably overly politically correct in my personal and professional life.  Why be that way onstage?  I’m going to RISK offending people.  Writing characters that are not from my background or life experience and bring troublesome images on stage.  Yes, in a children’s play.  It will go over the heads of the kids and drive the parents crazy.  Which is the point.

Make stage magic.  My Skype playwriting pal Ellen Struve described a very bad production of “A Christmas Carol” that was saved by one thing: it snowed – not just onstage, but also IN the audience.  Magic happened somewhere in that theatre.  That’s what I want to try onstage.  Vegetables dance.  Pictures talk.  We’ll see how far I can pull this off.  But just giving yourself permission to try things is fun. 

No judgments until you get to the end of the first draft.  I’m making notes about this or that (didn’t I already write a similar scene?  Isn’t this scene inappropriate for the age range of the audience?), but I’m not trying to fix anything.  Yet.  The goal is to get to the end. 

 Have some fun.  So far, so good.

Act Two, Scene Three

Kitty Felde – January 18, 2011

I keep coming up with ways to trick myself into writing.

I have an act two problem with a play I’ve been struggling with for several years.  It’s the one about which my husband keeps saying, “why don’t you just let it go?”  But you know how it is.  It’s like the troubled kid you know you can see through the bad times so he’ll become an upstanding citizen when he’s done growing up.  So I know I’m committed to that play. 

But I’ve been stuck for months trying to finish act two.  And not writing a thing.

So I’ve decided to trick myself.

The very first play I ever wrote was a melodrama, “Shanghai Heart.”  As an actor, I had played a season in lovely Oceano, California with The Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville Theatre, playing 12 year old ingénues (I had just graduated college!)  Some of the plays were classics, some newer knock offs. 

Melodramas rarely get the kind of serious dramaturg attention that other genres get.  Even musical comedy is taken more seriously.  So when the urge came for me to write my first play, I chose a melodrama.  I knew the style.  But more importantly, I told myself, if the play stunk, no one would know.  It was a melodrama, for heaven’s sake. 

This kind of ploy worked pretty well when I was freelancing as a journalist for several years.  The days that my story ideas were rejected, I told myself I wasn’t a journalist, I was really a playwright.  When my plays came back in that sad, beaten up envelope, I told myself I wasn’t really a playwright, I was a journalist.  Schizophrenic, but it worked for me.

Of course, in my heart of hearts, I was going to write the BEST melodrama on planet earth.  And with a cast of ten (TEN!  What was I thinking?) I had a lot of characters to create and plots to keep straight.  But in the end, my tale of mistaken identity and love on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast was a hit.

The Los Angeles Times said, “Felde knows the melodrama form and has created an admirably intricate plot involving lost children, double amnesia, filched land deeds, a displaced Mountie, vamps, chorines, an evil foreigner, revenge and love triumphant.”

 Drama-Logue raved, “clever, talented and resourceful Kitty Felde…we should be hearing more from this versatile young lady.”

 I went on to write ten other plays. 

 And then got stuck in act two hell.

 So back to my solution. 

 I decided to choose another genre that’s gotten short shrift: plays for young audiences. 

 I’m a Helen Hayes judge here in Washington (kind of like the Ovations or LA Drama Critics Circle awards) and because I’m on the New Plays committee, I see a lot of new kids shows.  And unfortunately, a lot of them are bad.  (I know because the kids I’ve borrowed as my theatre companions tell me that on the drive home.)

 So I decided to write a kids show, using the same rationale I used to write that very first play: if it was bad, who would know?

 Now, before anyone gets all hot and heavy, I know kids’ theatre should be the BEST we have to offer.  Otherwise, why would kids ever pay the big bucks to attend theatre as adults?  And I have seen some WONDERFUL theatre designed for kids that’s MUCH better than the dreck offered to adults.  In my heart of hearts, that’s the play I want to write.  But I won’t admit it to myself.  Not just yet.


Stealing Time to Write

Everyone does it: sometimes in a restroom, in a corner of a park, in your bedroom, hell – some people even do it in a public cafe.

We all steal time to write.

I say steal time because it feels selfish, inward, private.

And it just feels so good. Especially when it feels horrible during the process, it feels so good when you’re done. Writing is very much like spinning class in that way.

The true reason we steal time to write, though, is because we find it so easy not to write.

There’s laundry, the dog, the kids, the love interest, the season finale we could consider research, the day job, sleep, Facebook, Twitter, blogs about writing – no matter how you add, multiply or divide the time, these only equal procrastination.

I recently learned the hardest part about being self-employed: when deadlines aren’t met, you mostly disappoint yourself.

When I don’t write, I only disappoint myself.

Time to stop talking about it and start doing it! See you later………

Lessons from a rough production

For the second night of the production of my Bosnian war crimes play A PATCH OF EARTH, the whole kit and caboodle packed up and moved to the Noyes Museum, a charming art museum in the woods, near the seashore.

The stage was completely different. The museum is built on three levels, with all sorts of odd angles and such. The stage took over the bottom floor, crammed in among the sculptured pieces of art glass. But the compactness of the surroundings brought the audience right into the action, much more intimate than a proscenium stage.

Oh, there was one other new element to the show: a new actor was playing the lead Drazen Erdemovic tonight. On book. And he was terrific.

It wasn’t until after the show that I heard the whole story from the other actors in the show, all of them hungry to explain what happened. I learned the distracted actor of the night before who couldn’t remember any of his lines was no last minute substitution. He was the actor originally cast in the role. Apparently he never learned his lines. And then he disappeared a week before the show opened. Some speculated it was drugs, some suggested he spent those missing days in jail. But the director gave him another shot.

And the cast was furious. They said they felt particularly betrayed because they had poured heart and soul into telling the tale of a war criminal. And they wanted the author to be proud. After the performance the night before, they wanted me to know they could do better.

The morning of the second show, the director fired the lead actor. The assistant director stepped up to the plate, script in hand, and turned in an AMAZING performance. And the rest of the cast sparkled, thrilled to have the opportunity to create that world and make those characters truly come alive.

That amazing production at Richard Stocker College made me realize something important. It wasn’t about me. And “my” play. I remembered why I wanted to write A PATCH OF EARTH. Because a story I heard at the war crimes tribunal so haunted me, it wouldn’t leave me alone. And just using my skills as a radio journalist, I couldn’t get anyone else to care about this story and the questions his case raised. But I could do that through theatre. I wanted this story to affect and change people’s lives. To make them think about the nature and purpose of punishment. And to ask “what would I do if I were in his shoes?” I wanted the war in Yugoslavia to mean something to kids six thousand miles away.

I realized that the rehearsals, the extra curricular research these kids did on their own, the story itself, grabbed them and made them feel important and made them feel they were making a difference, were part of something important. This play changed their lives. And, judging from the audience Q&A, changed some lives out there as well. The play wasn’t about a Tony or an Ovation or a Helen Hayes award. It was about telling a story that changed lives. And in that sense, that particular production was an amazing success.