Wisdom for Writers from the World of Improv

Blasts from the Past: While I am busy finishing the current revision of The Red Oak, I am running a few of the most popular posts from this blog that were published at the old WordPress.com site. Enjoy.

Improv: an approach to improvisational theatre derived from the work of Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone

Improvisation is at the heart of creativity. That initial moment when nothing becomes something is at the core of artistic endeavour and of invention, and it is by definition improvisational.

Craft takes that inital something and forms it into an object d’art: a painting, a sculpture, a machine, a tool, a book, or a rehearsed performance.

Writers need craft. We need grammar and vocabulary, paragraphs and structure, tone and style. But we must not lose our connection with that creative moment, that initial spark, our muse. If we are in danger of losing that initial impulse, we can find guidance in the art forms that celebrate the creative moment as a complete thing in itself, improvisational forms.

To set the scene

I discovered Viola Spolin’s work during my theatrical training. Her book, Improvisation for the Theater was a primary text in my directing class and had an enduring impact on the way I work as an actor and as a director. Later, I trained with BATS Improv, where I learned about long form improvisation and the work of Keith Johnstone. I attended a master class with Johnstone that was instrumental in changing my understanding of character relationships in life and in stories.

When I returned to writing fiction a few years ago, the practices and principles of Improv were tools I brought with me.

Wisdom from the World of Improv

Show Up and Commit: For improvisational performers, the moment of stepping on to the stage and doing something, anything, is an oppurtunity that fear can kill. To make a performance engaging, the actor must step boldly onto the stage and perform as though there is nothing else that she could be doing at that moment. So, too, for writers. The moment we show up at the page can be fraught with fear. But, if we write boldly, with commitment to moving forward, we are creating. We can edit later, but for that first creation, we must simply show up and start writing – something, anything.

Start Anywhere: There is no correct place to begin. A performer can start with a setting, a gesture, a line of dialogue, an idea. So, too, can a writer. Start with the first thing that comes to mind and commit to that and it will lead the next word.

Be Obvious: Here, I will simply quote from Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. The parallel to writing should be clear.

“The improviser has to realize that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears….Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some ‘original’ idea because they want to be thought clever…. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears. An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions; he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts….Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.”

Accept What is Offered: The Improv mantra is “Yes, and….” This is shorthand for accepting what your scene partners give you and incorporating it into your work rather than rejecting it because it didn’t match your ideas of where the scene can go. This principle of “yes, and…” is what writers use when the muse hits them with an idea that pushes them to revise the outline they were following. Orson Scott Card used to tell his writing students that “the best stories often come from the juxtoposition of completely unrelated ideas.” Take those ideas and run with them. Don’t squash them. See where they lead. It might be magical.

Make Mistakes: If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t risking enough. If you try something different, you’ll probably mess it up a few times. Keep trying. Making mistakes is how we learn. Haven’t tried improvising a song before; you’ll sing a few horrible ones before you find a chorus that works. Haven’t written a sonnet; you’ll probably write some stinkers before you write one you don’t hate. If you aren’t willing to risk mistakes, you won’t grow.

In improvised performance, mistakes invite the audience into the journey more deeply as they worry whether the actors will find their way out of that challenge. Thriller writer Barry Eisler posts errors readers find in his novels on his web site; I am sure that has endeared him to some readers and sent others back to his books looking for mistakes just so they could make meaningful contact with him.

Status Matters: This is actually a key to characterization. People care about how they look and feel in relationship to one another. Every single interaction between two characters can be played or written as a move in a status game. The basic possible moves are: A tries to increase own status; A tries to decrease B’s status; A tries to increase B’s status – notice that having the power to do that immediately conveys status on A as well; A tries to block B as B tries to increase own status. For melodramatic purposes and for exercises, these can be huge moves. For realism, they must be as small as possible, but they must be there for characters to be believable. Friends agree to play status games with each other and accept defeat graciously; enemies play to win; everybody plays.

Use Your Craft: Skilled long form performers work as a team to tell a complete story, sometimes hours long. To do this, they draw on their knowledge of story structure, their experience of how to get in and out of scenes, their ability to remember what props and characters were mentioned earlier. The best performances occur when the craft is there but the audience can’t see it, when the craft is buried so deeply in the actors’ performances that it just happens. As writers, we can use this wisdom. Study craft, become consciously aware of all your available tools, practice so often that you can use them without thinking, then tell your story.

For a look at how improv can provide more general advice for life, I suggest Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson.

If you have other ideas of how improv can be useful to writers, please share them in the comments.

Improving Your Writing Will Change the Way You Read

The desire to write should come with a warning – preferably tattooed on one’s forehead in mirror-image reversal so one reads it in every reflective surface.

 WARNING: You May Never Escape Into a Book Again

The “may” is crucial. Some writers can fall into a book and lose themselves in the experience provided by the author, but many can’t or at least find far fewer books that can trigger that surrender into an author’s world.

For a reader who discovers within themselves a drive to write, it can be disconcerting to discover that they will never read the same way again. And for most writers, they do not realize that their experience of reading will change until it is too late.

The thing about learning a craft is you start to see the craftsmanship in other people’s work. And, once you have learned a little, you cannot unlearn it.

It doesn’t matter what the art form is, as soon as you go from treating it as a spontaneous form of enjoyment or self-expression to a discipline with techniques for creating effects, your relationship with the medium changes.

At first, you may not notice, but eventually, you will find yourself including technical analysis as part of how you experience a work. And a book that you once enjoyed may lose its power to sway you.

And, if you study any form of narrative structure, it isn’t just books you analyze. You start seeing the underlying structure in plays, movies, and tv shows.

There are books writers love to hate, the popular fiction that falls apart under literary analysis but engages readers. Recent examples include The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, and 50 Shades of Grey. To be fair, there is a certain amount of “sour grapes” involved when a technically poor writer sells an outrageous number of books, but it is also true that books with such substantial weaknesses are hard to stomach when those weaknesses scream at you from every sentence.

I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey, so I have nothing to say about it. I did read the other two examples I mentioned. In both cases, I saw both the mass appeal and the distaste.

Twilight was lightly written with a miniscule amount of plot and heavy reliance on repetition of phrases and images. I tore through it, skimming and gleaning because there was no substance to hold on to. Nothing about the book stuck with me. Honestly, I had forgotten it by the time I closed the cover.

The Da Vinci Code was different. Once again, I read it incredibly fast. There was no character development and the language was pedestrian, so I didn’t have any reason to savour the book. On the other hand, the short, action-driven chapters, each with its own cliff-hanger, kept me moving forward. I found myself fascinated by the structure of the book. So, I read all of Dan Brown’s books, in reverse order of composition, watching how he had learned to structure a page turner. I enjoyed reading Deception Point and Digital Fortress with an analytical eye, noticing how he was trying to write the same kind of story, but hadn’t quite mastered the structure he needed to make it work; he just about had it for Angels and Demons. And, I read The Lost Symbol, too, knowing going into it exactly what to expect. Sure enough, the structure was exactly the same, and having come to understand the structure, I saw in stark detail how little the book had to offer other than the structure, and I was bored.

There are writers who can still consistently sweep me into their stories: Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, and Jeannette Winterson. But there are many more I used to love that I can no longer read with pure pleasure and abandonment.

And don’t get me started on how studying theatre has changed how I experience watching a play. I have almost entirely given up going to see professional theatre, I am so consistently disappointed.

This post was inspired by a discussion that has been occurring on- and off-line through RAW (Reading as Writers), the book discussion forum run by the Writers’ Community of Durham Region. Last weekend, the conversation was offline at Books and Bevvies Night. You might want to check out what another writer who was there had to say about The Da Vinci Code, and trust me, it makes me look like I loved it.

When Something Has to Give

Have you missed me?

I have missed you.

I didn’t mean to disappear, but my priorities have been away from this blog during April and I couldn’t bring myself to post the dreck that I was writing when I did sit down to write for this site.

I did improvise poetry for 24 letters of the alphabet for A More Playful Life during the A to Z blogging challenge. W and X are still waiting for their moments. Putting unpolished work out on the net was odd. I felt extremely conflicted about whether I wanted people to read them poems or not. When I have performed improvised poetry in classes led by poet Alison Luterman, I have frozen. I loosened up somewhat writing these poems. I think it was a good exercise.

I have been busy revising my work in progress for my novel-writing class. We submitted the first 20 pages this past weekend and will be pitching the novels to a panel next week. With the excellent comments on the opening that I received from Charlotte Rains Dixon and feedback from my class on the synopsis, I had some significant changes I wanted to make. I am pleased with the current state of things, but not complacent.

The panel next week is going to choose one package to share with the chief acquisitions editor of a major publisher. I think I stand a reasonable chance of being selected and want my work to show me in the best light possible. The novel had to take priority over the blog.

My other priority has been celebrating my triplets’ fifth birthday. They are old enough to take the birthday adventure seriously and getting things right has been a challenge.

My favourite part of preparing for the birthday celebrations was the evening before their birthday. One at a time, I took each child into my room to wrap presents and sign cards. Each child had a fit of jealousy that their siblings were going to receive these cool gifts, and I had to help them understand that they would also be getting gifts. The moment of understanding was different for each child, but in each case, I got to witness a glow of excitement and anticipation as they realized what their siblings were doing when alone with me.

The actual birthday was fun. The birthday party was more of a relief than anything else. I wrote about getting ready for the party for An Intense Life today. In that piece I describe the intensity of the kids by comparing them to small monkey pumped full of amphetamines. It was wild.

But, I am back.

I pushed myself too hard in March, blogging every day. I needed energy I had already used for getting through April, and there was too much going on at the end of April.

So, I am doing myself a favour – or at least I think it is a favour. I’m not deciding how often I am going to post here in May. Suffice it to say that I plan for it to be more than April and less than March.

There was too much going on in March and April. I need to strike a new balance, a balance that puts my priorities where they need to be – on getting the novel finished.

Learning to Fail Better

“Learning to Fail Better” is a chapter title in Alice LaPlante’s book The Making of A Story. The chapter is about revision, but I have been thinking of the title in the context of my overall journey as a writer.

Like many fiction writers, I started my journey writing short stories during my elementary school years. I still have some of those stories. They are charming. They show real promise, a sense of detail and some imaginative twists, but are fundamentally derivative works, inspired by the stories my teachers read aloud in class.

In late elementary school, I tried my hand at a longer piece and got stuck trying to develop a plot. I couldn’t figure out how to build a narrative and I abandoned the project in despair. That failure was pivotal in the path I have taken on my return to writing fiction as an adult.

I was the perfect participant for NaNoWriMo, that annual mad dash of bad novel-writing. I had wanted to write a novel since elementary school, but had let my fear of writing a bad one stop me from writing at all.

The first year, I gave myself permision to write a horrible novel. I wrote a 50,000+ word narrative centered on a single character’s journey. There were some interesting characters, but the plot was horrible. Realizing this, I spent the next year studying plot. The following November, I dove into NaNoWriMo with an outline of half a plot and an idea of where to go from there. But, the idea wasn’t enough and I stalled.

But, I wasn’t done. I kept thinking and studying and writing some short stories.

The following year, I started NaNoWriMo with a full narrative arc planned and a Liquid Story Binder file with a description of what would happen in each chapter. By writing each chapter in that outline, I ended NaNoWriMo with a complete first draft of a middle-grade novel.

It was a messy first draft, but it was my first complete long-form narrative.

I was still failing to write a publishable novel, but I was failing better.

No book is ever perfect, but maybe, if I keep going, one day, I may have failed at a publishable level. And that is the goal.

What does the idea of learning to fail better mean to you?

Wisdom for Writers From the World of Improv

Improv: an approach to improvisational theatre derived from the work of Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone

Improvisation is at the heart of creativity. That initial moment when nothing becomes something is at the core of artistic endeavour and of invention, and it is by definition improvisational.

Craft takes that inital something and forms it into an object d’art: a painting, a sculpture, a machine, a tool, a book, or a rehearsed performance.

Writers need craft. We need grammar and vocabulary, paragraphs and structure, tone and style. But we must not lose our connection with that creative moment, that initial spark, our muse. If we are in danger of losing that initial impulse, we can find guidance in the art forms that celebrate the creative moment as a complete thing in itself, improvisational forms.

To set the scene

I discovered Viola Spolin’s work during my theatrical training. Her book, Improvisation for the Theater was a primary text in my directing class and had an enduring impact on the way I work as an actor and as a director. Later, I trained with BATS Improv, where I learned about long form improvisation and the work of Keith Johnstone. I attended a master class with Johnstone that was instrumental in changing my understanding of character relationships in life and in stories.

When I returned to writing fiction a few years ago, the practices and principles of Improv were tools I brought with me.

Wisdom from the World of Improv

  • Show Up and Commit: For improvisational performers, the moment of stepping on to the stage and doing something, anything, is an oppurtunity that fear can kill. To make a performance engaging, the actor must step boldly onto the stage and perform as though there is nothing else that she could be doing at that moment. So, too, for writers. The moment we show up at the page can be fraught with fear. But, if we write boldly, with commitment to moving forward, we are creating. We can edit later, but for that first creation, we must simply show up and start writing – something, anything.
  • Start Anywhere: There is no correct place to begin. A performer can start with a setting, a gesture, a line of dialogue, an idea. So, too, can a writer. Start with the first thing that comes to mind and commit to that and it will lead the next word.

“The improviser has to realize that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears….Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some ‘original’ idea because they want to be thought clever…. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears. An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions; he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts….Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.”

  • Accept What is Offered: The Improv mantra is “Yes, and….” This is shorthand for accepting what your scene partners give you and incorporating it into your work rather than rejecting it because it didn’t match your ideas of where the scene can go. This principle of “yes, and…” is what writers use when the muse hits them with an idea that pushes them to revise the outline they were following. Orson Scott Card used to tell his writing students that “the best stories often come from the juxtoposition of completely unrelated ideas.” Take those ideas and run with them. Don’t squash them. See where they lead. It might be magical.
  • Make Mistakes: If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t risking enough. If you try something different, you’ll probably mess it up a few times. Keep trying. Making mistakes is how we learn. Haven’t tried improvising a song before; you’ll sing a few horrible ones before you find a chorus that works. Haven’t written a sonnet; you’ll probably write some stinkers before you write one you don’t hate. If you aren’t willing to risk mistakes, you won’t grow.

In improvised performance, mistakes invite the audience into the journey more deeply as they worry whether the actors will find their way out of that challenge. Thriller writer Barry Eisler posts errors readers find in his novels on his web site; I am sure that has endeared him to some readers and sent others back to his books looking for mistakes just so they could make meaningful contact with him.

  • Status Matters: This is actually a key to characterization. People care about how they look and feel in relationship to one another. Every single interaction between two characters can be played or written as a move in a status game. The basic possible moves are: A tries to increase own status; A tries to decrease B’s status; A tries to increase B’s status – notice that having the power to do that immediately conveys status on A as well; A tries to block B as B tries to increase own status. For melodramatic purposes and for exercises, these can be huge moves. For realism, they must be as small as possible, but they must be there for characters to be believable. Friends agree to play status games with each other and accept defeat graciously; enemies play to win; everybody plays.
  • Use Your Craft: Skilled long form performers work as a team to tell a complete story, sometimes hours long. To do this, they draw on their knowledge of story structure, their experience of how to get in and out of scenes, their ability to remember what props and characters were mentioned earlier. The best performances occur when the craft is there but the audience can’t see it, when the craft is buried so deeply in the actors’ performances that it just happens. As writers, we can use this wisdom. Study craft, become consciously aware of all your available tools, practice so often that you can use them without thinking, then tell your story.

For a look at how improv can provide more general advice for life, I suggest Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson.

If you have other ideas of how improv can be useful to writers, please share them in the comments.

Using NaNoWriMo For Your Own Purposes

So you are thinking about NaNoWriMo.

You'll see a lot of your keyboard if you choose to embark on the roller-coaster they call NaNoWriMo.

You will spend hours with your keyboard if you choose to embark on the roller-coaster they call NaNoWriMo.

Why?

No, seriously. Why do you want to take part in this mad burst of writing frenzy?

Before you start, think about what you want to achieve.

If your goal is to prove that you can write 50,000 words in a month, you don’t need advice beyond what you can get from the NaNoWriMo website, but if you are interested in using the challenge to improve as a writer, it is worth setting more specific personal goals.

What could those goals be?

  • Write fast. Increasing your writing speed can help silence your Internal Editor, help you tap into your unconscious more strongly, or simply increase your output. If perfectionism is a problem for you, writing too fast for your editor to keep up is a great technique to develop.
  • Write a complete plot. This is easiest if you plan in October. A full-length novel is closer to 100,000 words than 50,000 words, so this goal could increase your word count substantially. I have a friend who sets this goal every year, doesn’t outline in advance, overwrites, and usually reaches 180,000 words to finish November with a complete story. I can’t make time to do that, but I can finish the first draft of a middle grade novel in 50,000 words.
  • Focus on a weakness in your writing. Maybe you could benefit from some deep exploration of setting, or you would like to focus on dialogue or plot or character development. Setting daily mini-foci could turn NaNoWriMo into a personalized writing course.
  • World-building. Speculative fiction requires deep world-building. You could do this in narrative form.

This year, I will be using NaNoWriMo to build the backstory of the world I am planning for my next novel. The novel requires a parallel fantasy universe that has been torn apart before the protagonist gets there. I’m planning to use NaNoWriMo to write the prequel. How did the world get so messed up that my hero needs to fix it? Maybe a novel in its own right, but certainly work I need to do for my next novel.

What are you going to do during NaNoWriMo to get more than simply 50,000 words out of the process?

Responding to a Blogging Award

Friday morning, I woke early, and after reviewing the blog post that was scheduled to go live that day, a post that had given me trouble the previous evening and I correctly suspected needed additional editing, and making a few revisions to my novel, I had time before making breakfast for the kids to check my email, where I discovered that Stan Stewart of Muz4Now had given me a “One Lovely Blog” award, one of those blogging awards that are structured like a chain letter but serve the positive purpose of both giving a momentary emotional boost to the recipient and of encouraging bloggers to read each other’s work which left me, after I enjoyed the immediate surge of inflated ego, with a dilemma: accept the award in the traditional manner or generate a more creative response?

I have been working through a self-study sentence structure course focused on teaching writers how to lengthen their sentences, not merely for the purpose of writing longer sentences, but to create a reading experience different from the experience of reading short, direct sentences, the favoured sentences of the modern writer, and this sentence-lengthening class pushes me to create sentences like those generated during Three-Sentence-Stories, an InterPlay form which limits each storyteller to only three sentences, leading many InterPlayers to construct very long sentences in order to tell complex stories within the confines of the form, and it struck me that I should be able to combine the exercises I have been doing for the course with the task of revealing 7 random things about myself. And the following is what I wrote.

Standing by the schoolyard fence, engaging in idle chatter with the other suburban stay-at-home moms waiting to pick up their kids, Kate felt the sharp sting of regret as she failed once again to reconcile the ordinariness of her days with her more-interesting memories of herself: as a teenager with pink bangs teased 4 inches high, a college student enhancing her natural six-foot stature with 4-inch heels, a law student with swirls of eyeliner cascading down her cheek in a tribute to Neil Gaiman’s Death, even a law school dropout drifting with all her belongings in the blue Mazda hatchback she named after the grandmother whose untimely death had provided the inheritance to pay for the car.

But, when the children poured on to the playground with whoops and shrieks, free from the confines of the classroom, and she saw her three among the crowd, romping and frolicking, the sting was gone, replaced by the deep warmth of her motherly affection.

After all those long sentences, I will refrain from discussing other blogs until a later post.

Have You Written Your Million Words of Dreck Yet?

“[W]rite out your million words of dreck before you’re at the place where you’ve learned enough to be really ready to start to publish your works on a regular basis.”

I found this quote from Johne Cook, sci-fi writer and editor of the space opera e-zine Ray Gun Revival, in a post on the value of stories that fail at Wordplay.

I love a million words of dreck as a measure of the learning needed on the journey towards regular publication because it gives a sense of the scope of development required. A million words is a lot, approximately 10 novels.

I had the mixed blessing of winning the first short story competition I entered. I was thrilled to see my story in print and to cash the associated cheque, but I still had a lot to learn about writing fiction. When I fret over the less successful pieces I have written since that first story, I remind myself that I am still a beginning fiction writer.

I spent decades writing copious non-fiction, well over a million words, but only sporadic poetry and short scripts. The jump into novel-length fiction is a huge leap, one I believe I am capable of making, but one that is requiring time, diligence, practice, and a lot of words.

But, it can’t be enough just to write a million words.  Analysis, critique, feed-back, and striving to improve are part of my growing process.

I am constantly developing my craft. My first attempts at novel-writing showed me I needed to get a grip on plotting, so I spent almost two years studying plot and working on my ability to craft a plot. Recently, I have focused on developing characters and worlds. And through it all, I continue to work on wordcraft – structuring sentences, choosing vocabulary, and making the details count.

Study plus writing. I’m well on my way to a million words of fiction, and the dreck is getting better.

When You Kill Your Darlings, Save Them

If you have ever looked for advice about editing, the phrase “kill your darlings” has likely crossed your path. The phrase is attributed widely, but probably harkens back to Arthur Qullier-Couch, who exhorted writers to “Murder your darlings,” in his 1914 lecture On Style.

I prefer the advice from Kurt Vonnegut in How To Write With Style because it is more explicit and less open for argument about what it means.

Have guts to cut

It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Kurt Vonnegut

On a related note, this week, I was reading Roz Morris’ Nail Your Novel and Chuck Wendig’s 250 Things You Should Know About Writing and came across what amounts to the same piece of advice in both books: save what you cut. Morris advocates saving everything in an “Outtakes” file. Wendig’s instruction is more brutal: “Gotta Abandon Your Baby? Butcher Him For Spare Parts.”

The combination of “be willing to cut” and “save everything” proved useful in my work this week. Two years ago, I abandoned a novel that deals with the same themes as my current project. The first project was a realistic YA and the active one is a middle grade fantasy. In both, the protagonist is a gifted girl coming to see that her uniqueness has benefits and is not merely a burden.

I abandoned the first project because I couldn’t fix plot problems in the second half. In my current project, I have been struggling to establish a realistic world before I shatter the illusion of normalcy and introduce magical elements.

A solution to the problems of both books emerged this week. After ruthless cutting, I realized that despite superficial differences the second novel essentially places the protagonist of the first in a new environment.

As soon as this became clear, I started the mental work of combining the realistic part of my first novel with the fantasy of the second. Between the two manuscripts, I have good work on character development and world building in both the realistic and fantasy worlds, and the elements of a plot that will force my theme to the fore. To make it work will take massive revision, but my instinct is that a mash-up of the two stories will be stronger than either story individually.

Thank goodness I saved everything and have both hardcopy and the digital file of the abandoned novel waiting for me when I get home from my vacation. I am anxious to start butchering that baby for spare parts. Talk to me in six months time and I may be calling it my “first draft” instead of my “abandoned” novel.

I’m exhilarated by this new use for work that felt wasted.

Have you ever gone back to an old failure and discovered material in it that you could use? What was it like to realize that old project was viable in some way after all?