Monday, April 30, 2007

How improvisation can help with comedy writing

Improvisation = mind mapping in time and space

Last night I performed in my first ever stage performance as an actor, in the "Schlocky Horror Improv Show" run by Impro Theatre ACT. I was nervous, but once I hit the stage I focused on the job at hand and discovered doing improv is a lot easier than worrying about it.

One of the reasons I took up improvisation was to enhance my comedy writing. I wasn't exactly sure how it might help though. I've never heard of strategies one can borrow from improv and apply to writing, but I thought there might be something to it.

I was recently reading a book about mind mapping and I finally realized a connection between improv and comedy writing.

One of the core rules about improv is to "accept all offers." That means no matter what someone says or does, you HAVE TO accept that it's now part of the story and you go with it and use it.

Applying the technique of mind mapping, you start with a main, primary idea (such as a murder weapon - "pink flamingo"), and the actors build a narrative around or towards that main idea. As a story progresses, it's like branches spreading in multiple directions from the main idea: someone might add to your branch of the mind map, or they might create their own branch.

Sometimes when someone comes out with an idea, you've got no idea how it connects to your branch or the main idea, you might think to yourself, "What's that go to do with pink flamingos?", but the rule of improv is to accept ALL offers, which means that there is a connection, and if you don't see it now, your quest is to make that connection. That's part of the creative challenge of improvisation.

In comedy writing, the lesson I've learned from improv (so far) is to start with a basic idea or premise and take multiple points of view, mapping out the possible direction or related ideas that stem from the main idea, and accept that all ideas are legitimate, and even try some seemingly random ideas, but connect it somehow, someway back to the main idea.

Unlike improv, when I'm writing by myself, I have to do all that brain-storming by myself, but with a tool like mind mapping, I can replicate the seeming randomness of improvisation and still have it connect together and make sense.

I can transfer the idea of a group-acted mind-map to the page and make my own comedy mind-map.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Stand up comedy in Canberra

The silence can be deafening

I went to see my first stand-up comedy in years last night at the Front Gallery in Lyneham. It's a very small venue, primarily catering to university students. Most people sat on the floor.

All of the acts were fairly new, but they were surprisingly polished given their lack of experience.

I was invited to attend by someone I met through Impro Theatre ACT who's trying to break into the whole comedy-thing.

Canberra presents some challenges if you want to do stand-up comedy. There aren't many venues and you'd probably need to take the 3-hour drive to Sydney most weekends if you really wanted to break into the scene.

That's not for me. I'm happy to continue with Improv Theatre. There's safety in numbers. It's awfully lonely-looking standing there all by yourself at that microphone.

Years ago I wrote stand-up material for Gary Bradbury, which he never paid me for. That kind of dulled my interest in trying to write professionally for comedians (show me the money!), but hanging around the impro people lately has rekindled my interest in comedy writing.

Microsoft: Hate the CHM Love the XML

It's not every day that there's a change for technical writers who make Help files for software applications running on Microsoft Windows.

The compressed HTML format (.chm) is now ten years old and with the release of the Vista operating system, Microsoft have abandoned the .chm format in favor of a new XML-based Help system.

However for the rest of us who don't work for Microsoft, they are still recommending that we continue to make Help files using .chm.


To help me better understand the changes Microsoft have made, I will be attending presentations by Joe Welinske and Matthew Ellison at the 10th Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference to be held in Melbourne in May 2007.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Even Mailer and Morrell get it wrong

I was reading David Morrell's book Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft. On page 183 he refers to the easy grammatical errors that even experienced writers can make:
A momentary carelessness took possession of me, as it occasionally does every writer. Norman Mailer once began Harlot's Ghost, a novel about the CIA, with a massive grammatical mistake in the first sentence.

On a late-winter evening in 1983, while driving through the fog along the Maine coast, recollections of old campfires began to drift into the March mist, and I thought of the Abnaki Indians of the Algonquin tribe who dwelt near Bangor a thousand years ago.

No one spotted the error until the book was in stores. That first sentence was fixed in the second edition. Pray for an attentive copyeditor. If you don't see the error, look at rule eleven in Strunk and White's popular English-usage book, The Elements of Style, a copy of which should always be at your desk.
After reading the above statement in Morrell's book, I looked up my own copy of Strunk and White. The eleventh rule states:

A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.
It goes on to give examples.

In case you're wondering, the second edition of Harlot's Ghost now reads:
On a late-winter evening in 1983, while driving my car through fog along the Maine coast road, recollections of old campfires began to drift into the March mists, and I thought of the Abnaki Indians of the Algonquin tribe who dwelt near Bangor a thousand years ago.
It pays to own The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by Strunk and White.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Another blon is borg

I've had blogs before that focused on specific topics, this time I want a generic blog that covers my broad professional and personal interests in writing: technical, ficiton, humorous, travel, screenplay, etc.

Feel free to make comments.