Writing on the Stage: Improvising for a Better Writing You

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”.

Birmingham Hippodrome Auditorium
Your hand touches some written pages on the sloping wood surface. Curious, you pick them up.

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.

NaNoWriMo 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.

The Electric Church - Jeff Somers
Green Mile

Crimson Petal and the White

David Copperfield

A Study in Scarlet

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.

Well, okay.

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:

7 thoughts on “Writing on the Stage: Improvising for a Better Writing You

  1. Harlan Ellison has been doing literal performance writing for years now, where he sits down in a bookshop window, someone in the crowd gives him a title, or the first word, or the first sentence, and off he goes to write a story. As he finishes each page, he tapes them up in the window.I did it once, without any particularly big crowd, in a bookshop window, taping up my pages. It’s a delight.As for serial writing…I did that for years and years. Most recently, with my shot at doing God in the Machine. I adore serial writing. I write best for an audience, for an immediate crowd. Not really because I want the feedback — I never cared, one way or the other, honest — but because it’s an audience, and it’s right there.If I could write on a stage, in front of an audience, and hand my pages to someone when I was done (George Guidall, perhaps) who would then read the page to the audience, I would go for it like a shot. I’d be scared witless, but I’d go for it.

  2. Hi Pete!I remembered Harlan Ellison’s “writer in a bookshop window” performances. He even did it with Neil Gaiman once; I think the story is somewhere in Fragile Things, in fact. I’d get so nervous on the other hand.Serial writing so far has been both fun and freeing for me. I still go ahead with a vague–very vague–plan, but there’s enough time between each piece to come up with something coherent, even if you’re not as experienced at writing. Of course, you shouldn’t have so much time that you never get anywhere.I hope to build up to the point where NaNoWriMo or Nin90–or even simply just a long work–aren’t so difficult anymore to do with a sane story, within a short time frame.The only problem I can see with serial writing is that you might not get to the end of a story for a long, long time, and that might get discouraging. I know that Sluggy Freelance takes care of that by having, by now, hundreds of endpoints that still segue into the next arc–a large part of its popularity these days.And of course TV series that focus on story arcs, like Babylon 5, are also serials. (B5 was a sad example of what happens when a serial gets rushed towards the end by means outside the creator’s control. Le sigh.)Ultimately my goal is to get to the point where I can write long works quickly and not need a rewrite. I may not like Stephen King, but I do adore Mr. Scalzi and his non-need for rewrites. And I’m pretty sure that Neil Gaiman also doesn’t need to do much in the way of rewrites, though sometimes his stories may take years (Coraline took nine, I think? Possibly even more). The way he wrote Odd and the Frost Giants makes me suspect that this is so.Of course, they still need to edit, but massive rewrites aren’t their thing.I recall that you follow the same philosophy. I thought ’twas blasphemy at the time, until I started doing stories and podcast scripts in single takes.

  3. It’s amazing how much of the stuff I talk about everyone declares is Utter Bunk & Blasphemy, and then sooner or later…everyone comes around, and we all find out I was right. And I just smile and shake my head and fail to say “I TOLD you,” because it won’t help any. And it’s why I’m patient when I offer a view on something and it’s called nuts. I know I’ll have you all in the end. With short stories, there are no re-writes. There’s a read-through, I clean up my unclear sentences, I spell-check, it goes out. That’s it. If it doesn’t work for whatever reason, usually it doesn’t get re-written until years later. I don’t do second drafts.With novels, I’m the same way. A first draft, some additions and polish, and then it’s out the door and away from me. Since you mentioned Neil Gaiman, I’ll point out that he says that you should write until it’s “good enough for jazz,” and then send it out. He’s right. I always came at it as “good enough for blues,” and it’s more or less the same idea. Isaac Asimov also did not do second drafts of any sort. Nor did Bradbury, Stephen King sort of does a second draft. I know little about John Scalzi (nice guy, I’m sure, but I’ve never meshed with him well), but I can rote off a list of authors who don’t particularly do other drafts. On the other hand, Gene Wolfe admits that his first drafts are terrible, shallow things, and he layers them up into Gene Wolfe Novels in the following drafts. There is always a flip-side, as surely as I am almost always right. :)

  4. Ah, Pete. We don’t appreciate you enough. ;) Though I admit I listen to John Scalzi before most anyone else. Our world views just collide too often: writing, politics, and otherwise.Plus some of my writing friends did the same thing throughout NaNoWriMo. I was amazed. And so when I read Scalzi’s book, that was the part that rang true to me.I still think rewrites are sometimes necessary. Eventually, a work will come along so complex that you know that to do it justice you need to rewrite. He acknowledges this, and I think some of King’s works, for instance, could have done with some more parsing. American Gods… I don’t know how THAT was written. Certainly not in the same was as Odd.But for the most part, learning to forge ahead will help even in such situations.:pokes Pete about his Rome novel:Gene Wolfe, yes. His work is definitely nuanced in ways that would be inhumanly possible without rewrites. To tell the truth I was wondering if your novels also merit rewrites. You certainly are trying to do much more complex structures, at least with your Rome book.Also, more writing experience helps immensely. I plan to work my way up to more complex stuff.

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