Monthly Archives: October 2011

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.


The Challenge of Writing Flash Fiction

Microfiction, nanofiction, sudden fiction, flash fiction: some of the many names for short fiction. Definitions vary, but the key is brevity. Some publications stretch the definition to 2,000 words, but many are looking for several hundred words.

When all you get is a glimpse, it has to be spectacular.

Flash fiction demands special skills. Narrative must begin as close to the climax as possible. Denouement is hinted at. Word choice is crucial.

Twitter has prompted some short fiction writers to distill storytelling into 140 character tales. Or even shorter. For yesterday’s Canada Writes Twitter Challenge, entries had to be no more than 126 characters so the submission tweet could include the hashtag #canadawrites.

The classic example of powerful microfiction is attributed to Ernest Hemingway, though it may actually be the work of John deGroot.

For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

What makes microfiction challenging?

Concise storytelling. There is no time to set up the story. More must be implied than said. And yet, there must be a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Formatting your story like a joke is highly effective: a quick set-up followed by a twisted resolution.

The entries in this week’s CanadaWrites challenge showed how hard it is to tell a story in 126 characters. Many of the entries described a moment or a turning point. Others conveyed the inciting incident and hinted at a possible resolution. Few truly told a story. Some gave up on narrative entirely and simply presented a poetic moment.

The fun in writing short forms come from the tight restrictions. Arjun Basu has written thousands of Twisters (140 character stories) since discovering Twitter. He has a searchable database of them here.

Short fiction isn’t easy, but it can be fun. And, because the form is short, you can write a lot of bad first drafts quickly to keep the muse engaged.

I learned about the Canada Writes Twitter Challenge about an hour before it started. By the end of the submission period, I had submitted several entries and discarded more. Unsurprisingly, the best were the ones I spent more time revising. And I had some ideas that I just couldn’t distill. But the challenge was invigourating.

Have you tried any of these very short forms of storytelling? What is your experience of this type of structure?

What To Write In Your One Wild and Precious Life?

Lost time is never found again.

Benjamin Franklin

Time is precious. What will you write with the time you have? If you are like most writers, you find ideas everywhere and the challenge is choosing which ideas to follow.

Advice is easy to find.

Fiction writers are frequently told not to worry about what subject matter will sell well because something else will be hot by the time you finish your manuscript, and lots of people find ways to argue either that what you love is what you know or that what you know is too restrictive to use as writing guidance.

I have been struggling with a variation on the ‘What should I be writing?’ question. Should I really be spending my precious writing time learning the craft of writing quality fiction? Or should I concentrate on writing non-fiction? In the realm of fiction, I am still working on my million words of dreck. But, in several areas of non-fiction writing, I have already put in a lot more time. I am probably more likely to be published if I focus on forms that are closer to what I have already learned how to do well.

But, and I think this is crucial, the fiction is demanding to be written. So, I write it because I love it, because at some level I must to satisfy my soul.

I invite you to do the same.

Even if you write what you are good at to make a living, making space to do what calls to your heart is important. Even when it means going back to the start and being a beginner again.

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.


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?

A Note on NaNoWriMo

Just a quick note to let you know how things will change around here for the next month or so.

I started this blog last year because I wanted to blog about my NaNoWriMo process. Since then, this blog has morphed into bigger reflections on writing and creativity.

Now that we are in November and my brain is preparing for this year’s NaNoWriMo, I want to maintain the Friday posts on more general topics. I also want to write about NaNoWriMo.

And so, I will do both: regular Friday posts and more random NaNoWriMo reflections.

I will be leading my kids through participation in the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program for the first time this year, so I expect to have a new perspective on the endeavour.


Writing at the Speed of the Unconscious

What is The Subconscious to every other man, in its creative aspect becomes, for writers, The Muse.
Ray Bradbury

The subconscious harbours all sorts of useful material for writers. Our brains store all of the facts we have absorbed from living in the world even if we are not sure how to access them. The images and passions that fill our dreams are the stuff that makes our writing rich, if only we can connect with them.

Thinking Space

Getting the subconscious to work on a problem in the background often benefits from slow, calm, repetitive activities: taking a shower, walking, sleeping, driving. My mind is always happy daydreaming about my current writing project while my body is washing the dishes or folding laundry.

Tapping the subconscious while at the keyboard is more challenging. Once I start seeing words physically appearing on the screen, my internal editor and heavy-handed conscious mind want to get in on the action. So I have to trick them into getting out of the way.

There is an instruction in InterPlay that made me aware of how I do this. When InterPlayers start a hand-to-hand contact dance, we bring a hand to touch our partner’s hand. Then, we move our hands to change how they are touching. After a few such moves, the leader asks the participants to change positions faster than the speed of thought. And we do.

Our subconscious mind is fast, faster than our conscious mind. By forcing our bodies to move fast, we can force the conscious mind to yield to the unconscious mind. In InterPlay, we use moving faster than the conscious mind to remind ourselves that our experience is bigger than our conscious mind. We become aware of the limits of consciousness and the power of the subconscious workings of our bodyspirits.

I realized recently that this is why I find NaNoWriMo a useful challenge, though I set myself additional challenges beyond the formal challenge. NaNoWriMo pushes me to write faster than I usually do.

By writing fast, I bypass my internal critic and go straight for the good stuff. The images that come out of my subconscious are usually more interesting, more emotionally charged, more multilayered in meaning that what comes out of my conscious mind. For my fiction, I need those qualities.

When I write blog posts, I write slowly.

I ponder the content of each blog post in the spare minutes of my day, mulling over ideas and starting to craft sentences during routine parts of my day – in the shower, washing dishes, picking up the kids toys, etc. By the time I sit at the keyboard to compose, I know what I want to say and have a general outline in my head. The actual writing is careful and controlled as I focus on articulating the ideas clearly.

Writing fiction is entirely different.

My first drafts are fast. They have to be.

By writing fast, I tap into my subconscious and discover the metaphors, characters, and details that enrich my fiction. My first drafts are messy, like my subconscious, but there are rich veins for me to mine during editing.

That is what works for me. Check out these links if you want to see other approaches for tapping into the subconscious.

  • Holly Lisle uses a form of timed writing exercise inspired by Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.
  • Jody Helfand shared 7 of her techniques on the Poetica Magazine blog.
  • Sara Douglass primes her subconscious by posing the question she needs to solve and then takes a bath.
  • Patrick Ross directs his subconscious while he sleeps.
  • Angela Booth recommends improv exercises.

Are there other techniques that work for you?

5 Resources for NaNoWriMo

So you want to write a novel?  And you think NaNoWriMo might help you do it.

It might. But only if you do it right.

A few years back, I was in your shoes. My brother had just run his first marathon and I wanted to show him that I, too, could complete a mammoth challenge. I hadn’t written much fiction in decades, but had spent much of those years struggling to find my way into and around the plot of a novel.  NaNoWriMo fit the bill.

I signed up on October 22nd, started writing on November 1st, and claimed my winner’s certificate on November 28th, having learned how much I didn’t know about writing a novel.

Here, for your benefit, are 5 things I wish I had read before I started:

And, if you are looking for a reason not to participate in NaNoWriMo, you could always read Better yet, DON’T write that novel.

On Blogging “Awards” and Obligation

After being nominated for the “One Lovely Blog” award by Stan Stewart over at Muz4Now, I feel the need to address the pay-it-forward element of blogging awards like “One Lovely Blog” and “Stylish Blogger.” There are several awards of this nature around the blogosphere. The basic set-up is that after nomination a blogger accepts the award by passing the award on to several other blogs and sharing something about themselves on their own blog.

There are positive elements embedded in these awards. Acknowledging the blogs that have meaning for you is part of building a sense of community. Telling writers that you like what they have to say is a worthy task. Pointing readers to quality blogs provides a service to the readers. And, sharing about ourselves in our writing gives our readers an opportunity to feel a personal connection to us and helps develop community.

Making Connections in Good Fun

The same good effects can be achieved through less manipulative means by engaging with other writers on their blogs and by linking to good quality posts from your own blog. By sharing freely and engaging without manipulation, we invite a positive response and trigger the natural human instinct to reciprocate gifts that is key to community building without triggering the ick factor that comes when we feel coerced.

There is an ick factor that comes from the emotional manipulation at work in these awards. By offering a reward you want, the pat on the back in the form of the award, the blogger who passes on the award to you is dictating the content of at least one post, which may not be something you want to incorporate into the overall look and feel of your blog. But, it takes a strong-willed person to turn down recognition, especially when it comes from members of your tribe.

That said, I know that the people who have nominated me for these awards, have been people who genuinely engage with me on my blog, who I have reason to believe are acting on entirely good motives.

I will not be passing on the “One Lovely Blog” award, but I will be spreading the link love in some upcoming posts.

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.

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