You find yourself walking onto a brightly lit stage, towards a podium, its little golden paper light glittering. There appears to be nothing in front of the stage but velvet darkness.
From your vantage point just behind the podium, your eyes adjust and now an auditorium is apparent around you, red cushioned seats slanting up dizzying heights, but entirely devoid of people. Your voice echoes when you say “hello”.
It’s your unfinished work in progress. Shocked, you flip through the pages, verifying that, yes, it is indeed yours.
Then you notice a different texture to the silence. Where once it seemed echoing, now it is full of a quiet and busy hush, the kind of sucking silence filled by many people waiting for your words, waiting for you to entertain them and not bore them.
When you turn to look, you see that they’ve all read your WIP so far. And they’re here to want more. How touching, your writer’s ego thinks.
And then you realize:
- You can’t change the work that they have in their hands. Every piece of boring dialogue, every plot hole, every bit where you thought you’d have more time to go back and fix it before the oh-so-fickle audience reads it.
- They want more now, and you haven’t yet figured out where the characters are going to go, how they’re going to develop, what twists will exist. You have an idea, but the idea is far from the expression of the idea.
And you are at a loss for words.
There is a fear every writer knows, a crippling doubt that strikes you when you least need it, which is before you’ve finished: you know your work is crap, and you need to rewrite it all now.
That voice is your internal editor. And it can, and often does, lead the way to a road of unfinished articles, stories, novels.
Writers need to finish things.
The well-known NaNoWriMo is an effort to help would-be writers become writers: finish a 50,000 word work in a month. Get in your quota of words every day, damn the internal editor, and finish. Rewrite later.
There are many people who participate in NaNoWriMo who either
- can’t finish, because the nightmare auditorium demands that you continue in the face of not being able to go back, and they become unnerved; or
- do finish, but are faced with such a monumental task of rewriting roughshod work, that they never rewrite.
And yet there are people for whom NaNoWriMo churns out very usable work. They’re the ones who can go up on that stage, not look back, and keep the audience entertained. They are our orators, our stand-up comedians, our solo actors. They keep going in the face of forgetful memories and tip-of-tongue disease, and they still do it well so that the audience enjoys the act regardless.
Becoming a successful and prolific writer means becoming one of those people.
It’s not a surprise that some of the most successful writers started out in journalism. The job forces you to write many pieces, all on tight deadlines, all of which will be thrust upon an unsuspecting public without so much as a galley proof in between.
To survive in that world, you need to learn how to write large amounts of profound text quickly, with no time for full rewrites. Slipping is a very bad thing.
Fewer would-be fiction writers these days start out their careers in newspaper rooms anymore.
Fewer still try to freelance seriously, either offline in magazines or online in professional blogs, or even on personal blogs (this article, for instance).
So how to capture that experience in other ways?
Performance writing is anything where you work on tight deadlines–in days, or even in hours–and continuously publish. Once you’ve published something, it’s set in stone, and you can only move forwards. Journalism excels in teaching people performance writing.
Newspaper articles are quite short, relative to even just the average short story, much less novel-length works. It would be nice to marry performance writing to longer works.
Which is where the serial steps in. And thanks to the accessibility of the web, with its quick turnaround time–and yes, we’re talking about things like WIRED or The Guardian–the world is a much friendlier place for the serialized story.
Serials are perfect because:
- Per published piece, there’s a smaller number of words to worry over, and yet each piece is part of a larger whole that you need to consider.
- As each piece is published, more and more of your story will become set in stone, and you’ll learn to think on your feet–and learn quickly what you needed to write in the first place.
And the stories serials tell are by no means restricted in complexity from more traditionally rendered start-to-finish books. Successful serials have given us gems like The Electric Church, The Green Mile, The Crimson Petal and the White, David Copperfield, A Study in Scarlet.
The most popular serials today are webcomics like Sluggy Freelance, which features intertwining and complex plots and characters, with threads that show up again and again in fascinatingly twisted forms.
Clearly getting a grip on the serial will assist in getting a grip in NaNoWriMo, and thus getting a grip in longer story writing in general. It’s a ticket to writing without fear.
Most people fear public speaking worse than death, and as it turns out, performance writing might as well be called “writing on the stage”. At least you’ll learn not to let your fear get the better of you.
Next time I’ll talk about what I’ve been doing to train myself to write on the stage.
Articles in the “Writing on the Stage” series: