News & Blog

Sign up to receive Elaine's newsletter for the latest book news, giveaways, and more
Sign Up

The First Rule of Improv/Revision

The title of this post comes from Tina Fey’s hilarious and smart book, Bossypants. The whole book is excellent, but my very favorite part begins on page 83, where Fey outlines her “Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat.”

“The first rule of improvisation is AGREE…Start with a YES and see where that takes you.” ~Tina Fey, Bossypants

In terms of improv, this means that if your partner says, “It sure is stinky in here,” and you say, “Nah, it smells fine to me,” then the scene is over and it wasn’t funny. But if you take what they say and run with it–“Yes, I’m filling the whoopee cushions. Want to help?” or “Yes, I notice you’re wearing your cheese hat again.”–then you’re getting somewhere. Then the magic can happen.

This idea of starting with YES has all sorts of implications in all areas of life, but what does it mean in terms of revision? Should you make every change suggested, even by the most trusted editor or critique partner? Absolutely not. But if you approach every critique with the attitude of “Yes”–as in “Yes, that might work” or “Yes, I see why you’d feel that way as a reader” or “Yes, I’ll at least give it a try”, then you’ll really get somewhere. Then the magic can happen.

It can be hard to lean toward YES, especially with the big stuff. “Take this plotline back and bring the other one forward. That’s your story.” “These characters need to meet sooner and share the page more often.” “I know this story all started with the doll, but…can you get rid of the doll?” (Best advice ever.) You can resist these kinds of suggestions flat-out, or do a half-hearted move-the-food-around-your-plate attempt until it looks like you’ve done what you were supposed to do–or you can say YES and see where it takes you.

My most recent experience with the power of YES happened when I sold my first foreign rights for my debut novel (!!!) on the condition that I cut the word count by 20% (?!?). I’ll admit, there was a part of me that wondered if it would be too much of a compromise, whether I could kill quite so many darlings and still be true to my story. But I said yes, and I tried it. And it totally worked.

The beauty of computers is that you can save a new copy of your manuscript and try anything on it, and if your YES crashes and burns, there is literally no harm done to your story. It’s still there in its original form! A wise author clued me into this trick. “Yes. I’ll try this thing my editor/agent/critique partner said, just so I can tell her/him I tried it. I can always go back to the old version.”

Do you want to know the best part? When it comes to the big stuff, I have only ever once gone back to the old version. Saying YES in myriad ways has made my stories infinitely better. I have never once regretted an answer of “Yes, I’ll give it a try.”

P.S. HUGE thanks to Erin “Cheese Hat” Shakespear and Helen “Whoopee Cushion” Boswell for their excellent improv lines above!

(Originally published January 12, 2017)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *