How to write like an improviser

This year I finished my first book and the next one is already 55k words in. Not too shabby, eh?

It does not, however, mean that I know what I’m doing. As I teenager I wanted to be a writer, but then at some point, I gave up on that dream. Why? Because it was too huge and too scary.

I’m not saying that it is less scary now, but at least now I have the skillset to deal with it – the skill set of an improviser. So, without further ado, here are some improv tips to keep in mind that could help you in writing and possibly in any creative activity.

1. Just do it

It can feel scary and intimidating, but if you do not take this step, nothing will happen. So, be there and do something. It does not have to perfect and it cannot be – especially when you have never done it before. But before this step, there is no growth. You will not become good at something by just hoping that you will get good at it. You have to do it. It is as simple as that.

2. Enjoy what you do

Imagine that you write a book but no-one buys or likes it. Pretty bad, eh? Now imagine that you hated writing it and spent several years of your time on it. Sound terrible, right?
The least you can do it is enjoy it yourself and even if the world does not need it later, you had already your fair share, and that is good enough.

3. Discover

I’m always curious to see where the story goes. Shouldn’t I know it as a writer? Maybe, but it would not be as fun if I did. Knowing too much ahead could even hinder the writing. Especially if everything is super detailed and well thought through in the movie that you see in your head. How could you ever put all that perfection into words? Well, obviously, you can’t. At least not like that. You could get it pretty close, but it will never be exactly as you have it imagined - the writing process changes the outcome, whether you want it or not. 
However, that is not a bad thing. You discover something new and maybe even better.

4. Ask 'What comes next'

The main thing is to know what comes next. And then you will see what comes after that. Step by step.

Some things will come naturally when you start looking at the situation through the eyes of the characters. What would this character do in that situation? Well, you know the answer. Also, why not add some challenges to the characters? Enforce them with hurdles and joys. Have fun with them.

5. Be aware of what happened before

Sure, you might say, I'll just write something down with your neat trick of 'what comes next', but it will not be a good story. Well, have you seen a good long-form improv show? The actors do not know where they are going with all that but somehow it still works. Why? Because they are aware of what was already there before and can then link it all together. 

Keith Johnstone (one the grandfathers of modern improv) compared long-form improv with a man who walked backwards - still moving ahead but always aware of what he had already passed.

It is a skill that can be trained.

6, Make mistakes

I'm not saying that you should do them intentionally, but at least don't be afraid to do them. I know my English is not perfect, it is not my native language, but I will not first go take all the possible English classes before I try writing in it. Mistakes happen. Sometimes I create words. Sometimes I have to use google translate or synonym generator to find the right expression. This writing would not exist if I would be afraid to make mistakes.
Just do the best you can with the current tools and skills you have and that is good enough.

7. Be ready to let go of your ideas

There are some ideas that are not too great and even if you write them down, they will not work. Still, try to finish them, and then just go on. No-one has to see them or even know that they existed. It's like in improv - sometimes you create crap. The aim is to get your skill to the level so high that even your bad show is good enough. The same should be true with writing.

So, be ready to let go of your ideas, even if they can feel the best ideas ever at the time. Just write then down with the skills and words you have and then tuck them away. You can always revisit them some months or years later. Maybe you just did not have the skills to make it work yet? Or maybe the idea just was not good enough. In any case, you will know it later. But now, let this one go, and take the next project.

8. Make clear choices to move the story forward

Writing a book can sometimes feel like an improv show. You go on the stage with a great idea and then someone comes with an even better one. Only this someone is also you. Well, one of you has to let go of the idea, obviously. But which idea should you go with? If you have not decided it after a day or two, just pick one and stick to it - even if it was not the best choice, it is better than being stuck and not doing anything.

Also, if it is writing, you can correct it later if you want to.

What should be the name of the drunk character who limps around in the palace? Who cares. What we actually care about is why is he limping around in the palace or why is he drunk.
Several of my characters have been called just a single letter at one time, only because I knew I had to get the part written down and I could always come back later to add a proper name. And even if I added a name later, I was not 100% sure about it, but at least it was better than a single letter. The single-letter thing worked only for Mr.T.

9. Tell the story you would like to hear

Would you in a different universe, who has never written a book, pick this book up, read it and give it a positive review? If not, why? You don't have to love it before you show it to others, but it should be at least something you would like to read. As they say, to love others you first have to love yourself. So, to please others you first have to...

10. Use what you have

Do you know how to create the best lasagna? Use that for a character. Not that you have to share your mother's secret recipe, but what you can share is the feeling of making a good lasagna. You have that experience in you, and you can just give it to any made-up character. Just add your experiences to the blender, mix them up and then use them where needed to the tell the story you would like to tell.
There is no shame in using your own stuff. Instead, you can add surprising credibility to your characters with it.

Also, if you are into improv, theatre, live-action roleplay or dungeons and dragons you already know how to create characters. Do that if you need a character for your writing.
Use whatever you have at your disposal.

So, this was my two cents! Hopefully, you will find these ideas just as helpful as I did. 
May your creativity fly.

A small announcement

So, this happened: This week I sold my first book!

Wait! What?

No, it does not mean that I am a door to door salesman now. Neither have any publishers picked up my manuscript. However, I did decide to put it up on Amazon as Kindle ebook (hail the cover style that makes you think of the 90s).

[update on 28th of August: Now also available as a paperback ]

Just look at that dope 90s feeling

Wait! You wrote a book? How did that happen?

Well, to tell you the truth... it was an accident.

It all started in the summer of 2015. I was down with fever and reading Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett and as we all know, it is not wise to read when you are high (around 38 degrees).
After finishing the book, I had the urge to write something (also my feverish eyes could not stand any additional reading). So I started to write... and not even in my native language.
I know, it still makes no sense.

Anyways, after a few weeks, I had a finished short story that was fun and all, but the ending did not quite work. I wasn't sure what to do with it, so I sent it to some friends. After positive feedback and encouragement (insert a Personal Thank You here if you were one of these people) I continued working on it.

Soon I had a novella, that was also extremely funny, but that too was not enough.

And then it turned into a novel. But the ending still did not work, so I rewrote it... and then I rewrote it again.

I did get it to work finally and liked the characters and the story, there were obviously some other issues in it that I had missed before. So I tinkered with it some more. Then I sent it out for test reading to several friends and colleagues (I bow to all the test readers who assisted me in this step).
I fixed the mentioned bits and sent it to some competitions.

And... did not win.

To be honest, I would have been surprised if I did. It was my first ever writing in that length. I'm still surprised I wrote it and still have no idea what I'm doing when I write, but I did even less so when I started.
And after 4 years, here we are.
I decided to put it out there and focus on my next piece.

So, are you saying that it is not good? Well, that's not a wise sales pitch, mate.

No, I'm not saying that. However,  take the first book of any author and then take the last one. You see the difference. I'm not saying that I will be any good innit, but...
There are certainly people who would call my first book Pratchett fanfic and I cannot disagree. This is where my language skills and love for books came from.  Developing your own style takes time and practice and I feel the second book (that is already over 50k - I plan to finish it next year) already has its own vibe that seems more genuine.

So, you are rich and famous now?

Hell no!
But if I am lucky, people will like the book, get some smiles and laughs (it's still funny, but also serious - these are not opposites), and maybe even give me enough money for it so I could buy myself a cup of coffee at the end of the month. :) And I will definitely continue writing.
This is not the end. This is a milestone.

How long is it again?

Well, well... oh, you mean the writing?
In MS Word it was around 300 pages, but I also use a lot of spaces to keep the structure more clear. Kindle puts it somewhere around 218 pages, but it might not take into consideration the millions of footnotes.

The journey continues. 

In hindsight, it is obvious that I wrote the first book in the scrum framework - short story, novella, novel, all of them were finished products. I did not even know I had a book in me. Currently, I'm writing knowing that it will be a book. This will make a difference.

Also, I can already hint that it will be in the same world and have many of the same characters (think in style of 5 years later)

When I start thinking about it, the last 4 years of my life have been quite crazy. There have been ups  (for example getting new cats) and downs (... why do you think we needed new cats?) and I feel writing has helped me to survive it. There have been several days like this:

But I'm still kicking, alive and writing.

As Neil Gaiman put it in a speech in 2012

"Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

Make good art.

I'm serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn't matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

Make it on the good days too."

And I must agree.

Though, I'm not sure how good it is yet. This is for You to decide.

Kirjuta luuletus...

... ütles Tegude kalender. Ma siis mõtlesin, et kirjutan - sai ju kunagi palju neid sõnu ritta seatud. Selline ta siis tuli ja las ta siis on.

Tüdruk, kes vaatas tähti
Me olime ja vaatasime tähti
Küll hoones sees, kuid puudus aken, uks.
Sein pragunev ning laeks ainult lehti
võis näha: Miskit jäänud oli poolikuks.

Sest kohast sai mu hingerahu tempel.
Hõrk pelgupaik, kus puhata sai meel.
Ei teesklust, maske, argipäeva tempe.
Oh kuidas otsin seda tunnet veel.

On läinud koht ning nii ka läinud sina.
Veel tähistaevas tunnen ära meid.
Miks sünnime me nõnda hapratena?
Oh kallis sõber... soovin sul häid teid.

To my dear friend

It's been close to half a year since we last spoke. 

Though this is not out of the ordinary when I look back to recent years of our friendship. We met up once or twice per year, if lucky, and contacted each other when we felt like it. 
Sometimes there was even less than an email in a month. 

And this was fine. 

Our friendship was strong - we knew each other more than half of our lifetimes.
There was never any pressure or urgency. The knowledge that you had a friend on your side, even if you did not see this friend too often, was enough. You could reach out, sure, but often the knowledge that you could was good enough. 

Maybe because you had been there so many times before, during times that I'm rather surprised that I survived - just listening, without any judgement, and guiding with your kind words. 

I felt that I got more than I gave and that I was a burden. Not that you ever said anything like it, you never would have, even if you felt this way (though I hope you didn't) ... 
You know this inner voice. You had it too. 
Asking for help was and is hard. 

It took me 13 years before I understood that I needed help and could collect myself enough to go see a therapist, but before that, you were my main source of help. I kid you not when I say that I would not be here without you. 
But you did not see that. What you saw was me being strong and handling my depression and PTSD. 

But you just cannot be strong alone... it does not work that way.

It's been eight years since I had my first therapy session and it was obviously not the last. Things have changed. I do not have regular visits anymore, but I try to check in when I'm not sure about something in my soul and need an honest reflection. 

I live and am still sometimes surprised how well it all has turned out. I have a family, loving wife, a steady job, a flat, two cats and deep connections with people. Next to that, I even have a hobby that people pay me for... really, how amazing is that? 

True, there is a voice in my head, that will most likely stay there for the rest of my life, saying that I do not deserve it. The same voice that tries to stop me from doing anything, saying that I will fail. The voice that says that I will disappoint people and that at some point I will be arrested for "trying to behave like a normal human". I have learned to live with it now.

The fact is that I'm not normal, if there ever was such a thing, and that is fine. It's just been a bloody painful journey to get to this point and understanding... and the journey goes on. I consider myself extremely lucky to have met so many amazing people on the way and I even have a proper safety net for times when things get tough.

But there was a time when you were the only one I had. The only one who made it safe for me to open up and also the one whom I knew could handle it. 

Nothing or no-one can replace that.

I remember how we once talked about love. You had just read the book "Veronika decides to die" and liked the idea of love healing people. Knowing the story, I understand why it popped into my mind now.

I remember being sceptical about this concept at the time. Maybe because I had no idea of love back then, all I knew was the ooey-gooey stuff from books and movies. Now, I would define it differently: Love is the attention and time we give to something or someone - the shared moments of connection.
And this does heal.

Even if the connection is no longer there, there have been plenty of shared moments. 

I will be forever grateful for the ones we had.

I miss you, my dear friend.

Philosophies in Improv

I have had several improv teachers in my life and have tried and seen many different approaches. However, I have not met something that tries to capture improv philosophies and it is a shame as it can make a ton of difference.
Here I will try to do something along these lines. Though, I recommend taking it with a grain of salt. I'm no expert in the matter. These are just some thoughts.

Why is it important?

Let me give you an example. In LARP (live action role play) there are two main attitudes: play to win or to have an adventure.
In case you want to have the latter, you make a group of a fighter, spellcaster, healer, thief, etc - you know, the classic variety - and just try to have a great story together. Yes, it is great if you can also finish your mission, but the main aim is on the narrative and roleplay. You keep your real life and game separated.
In case you play to win, your approach is very different. You set up a group of clerics (essentially, tanks with healing spells) and use anything at your disposal to win the game/mission/narrative. Hence you have already made plans and preparations in advance to make sure you succeed.
You can already guess what happens when these two approaches clash within one game. Both will accuse the other of not being a good sport.
Both act based on their philosophy and expect others to do the same... and this is the problem. However, if you are aware of these two very different approaches, you can act accordingly and as a game master even make games that would challenge both. While it is wise to keep these approaches in mind, note that there are plenty of players who are somewhere in the middle.

What about in improv?

I have been pondering this question for a long time. I see the difference, but don't know how to put it into words. However, it can help to look at the last 2 improv books in my collection:
The Improviser's Way: A Longform Workbook by Katy Schutte
TAKE IT EASY™ by Ryan Millar
Both brilliant in their own way and both made by brilliant improv actors/teachers (and I met both of them in my first year in improv).
One gives very specific instructions on how to create and train for a format, while the other gives advice on how to not fret too much, be like water and go with whatever is there.  I don't want to call them conflicting approaches, however, one seems to be more structure oriented while the other is more about discovering what is already there. Don't get me wrong, you can also discover what is there within a structure and you can just as well create a structure around what you discover on the spot - we do it all the time on the stage.
The question is more along the lines of what do you establish first.

The Actors Dream

Sometimes we tend to forget what a magnificent thing we do as improv teachers. A stage is a scary place and many people have had nightmares of being in the middle of it and not knowing what to say.  This nightmare is so common among people who are constantly on stage that even has a name: The Actors Dream.
We, the improv teachers are challenging this nightmare and it is not a small feat as there are only two things we can do about it. The stage is scary - you can improve the armour or remove the fear.
How do you improve the armour? By learning structure and things that work. By adding items to your toolbox for every possible situation. By being in control.
How do you remove the fear? By individual work with yourself. By letting go and being like water. By understanding that there is no such thing as failure, life is short and you will die anyway (... eh, that was me, sorry).
You can see how these two ways link to the two previously mentioned books.

Teachers or Supporters?

It seems to me that we can also do the same separation on how improv is taught.
There are those who have a set rules system and way of doing improv. There is a right and wrong way to do improv and everything that does not fit their school attitude is seen as wrong.
(For example, there are people who see improv on serious topics as blasphemy - improv, in their opinion, should always make you laugh.)
These teachers are very proud of the school they participated in - seeing this as a proof that they do the right thing.
The result is that pupils know how to make a great show in a specific style of improv, however, do not often know how to appreciate other forms and attitudes.

Next to that, we also have the ones who just set a few ground rules (support and listen) and tell you to explore - be like a child and discover. Everything, (as long as you do not go against the ground rules)  is permitted and fine. The scene can be on any topic, as long as you can commit to it.
These teachers have often self-learned, have experience from different sections (clowning, etc) and have combined several teachings together. The result is pupils who are better people... as the focus is more on listening and supporting skills (that are helpful also in real life)... they also have a wider view on the topic - however, it takes more time to get them stage ready in the beginning.
What I have also seen more in this way of learning improv, is that people discover more things about themselves and often pick up hobbies they used to have in their childhood - improv is still there, but more like a framework or idea that influences life, not so much as an art form that you have to perform in.

Now, I fully know that these are generalisations and just as in LARP, one is not better than the other, it just has a different focus. Most of us are somewhere in between.

However, thinking about these topics can help us understand fellow improvisers better.