Over the years I’ve gotten to learn a little bit about sketch comedy and improv because my husband is a long-time performer. I’m always amazed when I watch his shows at how the spontaneous collaboration works. Whenever someone onstage gets an idea rolling, the other performers embrace and expand it, and more often than not a pretty coherent story blossoms out of something as small as a single word. Considering that as many as half-dozen people are creating the story without actually negotiating the content, that’s impressive. I mean, I sometimes fight too much with myself to get anything on the page.
“Always say yes” is a rule in improv, and it’s a big part of what makes this creativity and collaboration possible. (Tina Fey talked about it in Bossypants and explains how saying yes changed her life here.) At its most basic, the idea applies to how you respond to the other performers within a scene. If you start with the intention that your scene is set in Antarctica, it’s your collaborator’s job to say yes to that idea. Not to think, No–we’re not in Antarctica; we’re at the mall on Black Friday. My idea is better; I’m changing this. No matter how wacked out the idea is, just go with it.
It’s even better to say “Yes, and . . . ” Build on ideas. So your partner places you in a scene in Antarctica, and you respond with “Yes, and we’re here because the plane crashed and now we’re stranded like the guys in the movie Alive.” And your partner might respond with, “Yes, and we would consider cannibalism to survive except we’re part of a group traveling home from a veganism conference.” And so on.
If someone refuses to say yes, things shut down. If someone doesn’t say “yes, and,” it doesn’t build. The same is true for revising.
Whenever you’re revising, and particularly when your revision involves the collaboration of someone else–like a CP, or an agent, or an editor–it’s good to keep an open mind. Approach the work with the mindset of saying yes, and–not with a mindset of no, because. Of course, this is easier said than done–nobody wants to kill his or her darlings, and a lot of times saying no is a reaction to that desire to retain and protect what we’ve worked so hard to create. Saying yes doesn’t mean blindly accepting suggestions, but pushing back out of instinct, or the need to control, instead of for a good reason can be limiting. Adding the “and” can be a way to make sure you take suggestions in a direction that’s right for you. Saying yes, and keeping yourself open to fresh ideas and collaboration, is a way to grow as a writer and a storyteller–and a way to make the revision process more creative.
So, writer friends: do you have a hard time saying yes to changes during revisions? How do you collaborate in the writing process?