How Improv Can Improve Your Writing

I’ve mentioned before (in 7 Tips for Writing Realistic Dialogue) that trying improv (the art of performed improvisation) can improve your writing.

Well, currently I’m reading Bossypants by Tina Fey, and in it she gives the rules of improv and describes how these rules have changed her life. The rules are as follows:

  1. Say “YES”
  2. Say “YES, AND…”
  3. Make statements
  4. There are no mistakes, only opportunities

Applying these rules to your writing will help you soldier through a crummy first draft by shutting up your internal editor. The trick is to improv against yourself.

Say “YES”

Stop arguing with yourself and start writing. Stop saying you can’t do it, or it’s too hard, or you need to learn more before you can start. Just start. Your improv partner (you) might be crazy, but go with it. In fact, craziness usually translates into energy, so embrace the crazy and hammer out that draft.

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

You can't be that kid standing at the top of the water slide overthinking it. You have to go down the chute_Tina Fey
Jason Merritt / Gettyimages

Say “Yes, AND…”

Rather than tearing at or criticizing what you’ve already created, build on that and create in a different direction.

If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth”–now we’re getting somewhere.

Maybe you’ve written yourself into a corner. Maybe you’ve hit a writer’s block. Don’t stop, don’t backtrack, don’t correct. Just blast through that obstacle in the weirdest way imaginable. Keep moving forward, as Walt Disney would say. Don’t stop moving forward until you’ve typed “The End;” then go back and start revising.

See Speed-Writing Your First Draft: 5 Tips as well as 10 Steps to Finishing a Novel for more ways to silence your inner critic while writing.

Make statements

This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” … In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.

Have enough confidence in yourself that if you come to an obstacle, you’ll be able to get through it. If you need to, take inspiration from fictional characters. It’s their job to overcome obstacles.

There are no mistakes, only opportunities

If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field.

If your improv partner (you) screws up a scene for you, just go with it. If your characters don’t cooperate with your plot, change your story. In fiction, you might be a writer who outlines or meticulously plots beforehand, but between Chapter One and The End, your characters are the monarchy. You might be an omnipotent god-with-a-keyboard, but your characters still need free will. Forcing your characters to abide by your plan turns them into objects, not characters.

In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.

Look, as an editor, I’m not going to tell you that everything you write is going to be good enough for publication. But it is good enough for you to spend time writing it. Every thing you write is one step towards becoming a better author, even if those pages live in a drawer or only twelve people read your book and ten leave horrible reviews. You are enough, whether you are published or not. Even if you count a scene or an entire manuscript as a failure, you are not a failure. You accomplished something. You wrote something no one else could.

Everyone falls and everyone fails. The difference between an unpublished writer and a published one is grit—perseverance and resilience despite mistakes.

When you think you’ve messed up, work with it. When you’re knocked down, get back up again. I’m rooting for you.

This video is a great illustration of perseverance:

Psst: be sure to read Elizabeth’s post from last week, too!

Struggling writer? Listen to “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner.

I don’t watch the show “Mad Men,” but I was inspired when fellow MS Editor Lara Willard sent me an article by the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner.

His is a story that most writers and creatives can relate to: the need to write no matter what, coupled with years of rejection. He didn’t let it stop him; on the contrary, he says,  “Rejection enrages me, but that ‘I’ll show you!’ feeling is an extremely powerful motivator.”

I know that feeling. I had two “I’ll show you!” moments with college mentors, and both have stuck with me ever since. The first was my advisor, who told me straight-up, “You’ll never be assertive enough to be a freelancer.” When I got the taste of the work, though, of using what I knew about good writing to help other writers become better writers, I was hooked. I knew I had to prove her wrong, so I grew, I did the work, and I succeeded.

I got a chance to talk to that advisor the other day, and I told her that story. She told me that I hadn’t been assertive enough in college, but that she could tell that I had grown. We parted happily, and not until after she had told me that she was really, really happy to be wrong.

An “I’ll show you” moment also came up in my own creative writing. I’ve always loved to create using words, but the pressure to perform in college creative writing classes killed my storytelling almost completely. A teacher told me that the thing I wanted to create didn’t and couldn’t exist (side note: it does!), and I knew in that moment that it was going to be my life goal to prove her wrong, too. I wanted to write, and well. I wanted to create my specific thing, and  I wanted it to succeed.

I hope it does. While my journey as an editor is well underway, my journey as a writer is just beginning. Matthew Weiner has something to say about that, too:

“The most defeatist thing I hear is, ‘I’m going to give it a couple of years.’ You can’t set a clock for yourself. If you do, you are not a writer. You should want it so badly that you don’t have a choice. You have to commit for the long haul. There’s no shame in being a starving artist. Get a day job, but don’t get too good at it. It will take you away from your writing.”

My “day job” is editing now, and I do want to stay “too good” at it. Having said that, I am working to set aside time in my days for creative writing. It’s not just the “I’ll show you!” feeling motivating me; it’s what I need to do.

I know that many of you are in that same boat. You’ve had people tell you that your writing just doesn’t cut it, or that your stories just don’t have a place in this market. You’ve received more rejection letters than you would care to admit, and you’re starting to wonder if you’ll ever make it. If that’s true, read Matthew Weiner’s full piece here. See how rough the journey to “Mad Men” was for him, and let him tell you why he stuck with it. Then, think about what it is that makes you stick with your work.

Don’t ever give up–if writing is who you are, it’s worth every ounce of struggle and work you put into it. As long as you’re writing, you’re succeeding at being who you have chosen to be.

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Stakes: You need them!

This is a topic I’ve covered quite a bit on my own website, but I still see a lot of writers struggling to include stakes in their query. So we’re going to talk about it again here.

So you’re writing your query. It’s going well. You’ve established your setting. You’ve established your characters. You’ve even got some good conflict going. That’s all great! Now you want to end your query with maximum level impact. Something that will leave the reader with that I-gotta-have-this-immediately feeling.

How do you achieve that effect? If you can’t guess from the title of this post, the answer is stakes. Character, setting, and conflict are all necessary aspects of your query. But really standout queries also rely on clearly established stakes.

Stakes are more than just conflict. Stakes are what your main character stands to lose if they don’t win the conflict you’ve already presented. Without stakes, there’s no real reason to care whether the main character succeeds or not.

Would we care whether Frodo could destroy the ring if the fate of Middle Earth didn’t hang in the balance? Would we care whether Katniss could win the Hunger Games if failure didn’t mean death? Probably not. In your query letter, you need to be clear about what happens if the main character can’t successfully resolve the conflict.

If you’re unsure how exactly to do this, I have a simple formula I recommend. It goes as follows:

Main character must do [insert really hard thing] or else [insert really bad thing] will happen.

You can play with the wording, of course. But that’s the gist of it. Not too hard, is it?

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Don’t leave your reader wondering why they should care. Give them stakes!

Making your writer’s block productive

It happens to everyone. That I-can’t-stand-the-thought-of-writing-right-now feeling. You get to this moment where you feel like just looking at your manuscript will make you vomit.

Most of the time I would advise you to just write through it. Butt in chair until words happen. But what if you can’t even handle that? Here are a few things you can do while you’re waiting for that spark to reignite.

  1. Read. Read as much as you can. It’s the best non-writing thing you can do to improve your writing.
  2. Learn a new skill. If you’re struggling with writing, try your hand at another creative outlet. Give sculpting a go. Learn a dance routine. Alternatively, try learning a skill your main character would us. Are they an archer? Try shooting some arrows yourself. Or if they ride horses, try that out.
  3. Get some exercise. Focusing on a physical activity will help clear your head. This doesn’t even have to be a hardcore workout complete with cardio and strength training. It can be as simple as going for a walk.
  4. Research agents. One of my favorite things to do during a bout of writer’s block is to stalk the Manuscript Wishlist feed or the Ten Queries feed. If you’re planning to get an agent eventually, you may as well start researching now (just don’t send before you’re ready!). I also find that this gets me excited about writing because it reminds me what my long term goals are.
  5. Get into your novel aesthetics. Make a Pinterest board for your book. Choose your dream cast for when they make your bestseller into a movie.  I recently discovered a site where you can make manga-esque pictures of your characters, and I had a lot of fun with it.
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The main character from my current work in progress, who apparently is not impressed by the very science looking thing behind her.

Sometimes writing blocks happen. But when they do, you can still find writing-productive things to do. Let us know in the comments what some of you like to do to make your creative dry spells productive!