Challenges, Collaboration, and Productive Writing

Just the other day, someone challenged me into writing a screenplay, a comedy version of the new movie Real Steel.  I was hesitant at first, but then became enthusiastic as I thought about a variety of wacky scenarios that I could come up with.

Comedians have The Aristocrats, a joke that is part-warm-up-exercise and part-one-upmanship.  The purpose of the joke is not only to shock the audience but to test the comedian’s ability to think on the fly and come up with material.  Writers – actually, anyone in any art form – can do the same thing by challenging each other to enter new territory.  For me, it’s writing comedy and writing it in dramatic form rather than prose or verse.

Some writers can get too comfortable in certain genres.  J.K. Rowling, for example, has spent her entire career so far focused on Harry Potter.  That’s not to suggest that the Potter books are bad, but now, especially with the series completed, what comes next?  Write about Harry Potter twenty years down the road, or move on to something different?  If I personally knew Rowling (I don’t), I’d go to her and say, “I dare you to write a detective story.  No wands.  No evil wizards.  A man is found floating face-down in a pond on a golf course.  Solve the mystery.”

This exercise, which I would not advise trying to get into print, is very useful to hone one’s skills as a writer and to explore potential genres for newcomers.  A guy wants to try being a writer, but he doesn’t know what genre he’d like to go for.  He’s not a big reader and doesn’t have much time to read (that’s crap, by the way; as a writer, you have to read).  So someone tosses a random thought: “Jerry, try writing about spies in World War I.”

Again, let me emphasize that success is not the goal with this exercise, trying is.  If you start writing something new and find you’re enjoying it, then maybe that can be developed into a new short story or a novel, or a screenplay.  But at least have the guts to step outside your comfort zone because you really don’t know what writing you’re good at unless you try something out.

Collaboration – working with another writer on a single story – is another thing I’ve thought about over the last few days.  I was talking to a friend of mine in Egypt earlier this week and she suggested that we write a horror story together. 

Imagine you and another writer are playing a game of catch.  The baseball is blank.  You have the first throw and you write a paragraph onto the ball before throwing it.  Your friend catches it, writes another paragraph to build up on what you wrote, and tosses it back.  You catch it, write more building upon what she’s written.  The story is continually bouncing back and forth between you two (or three or four, or however many writers you’re working with).

This should teach you two things.  First, like the earlier idea of challenging yourself into new territory, you should come up with new ideas.  You should be developing your ability to generate new stories at any moment based on whatever information is given to you.  In short, you’re becoming a better storyteller, and this will help make things easier for you in the future when you’re working on your own.

Secondly, you should be learning craft issues from your collaborator.  Last week’s post on dialogue, for example, I said that I start most stories with a rough script.  I don’t think every writer does this.  Perhaps another writer has trouble with dialogue and this is a useful new skill for her to learn.  Turned the other way around, maybe I can learn to stop using the script as a crutch to help me along.

Writing, by its very nature, requires a lot of time spent by yourself, but don’t shut the world out completely because you may be missing out on a number of learning experiences.

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