Sunday, August 2, 2009

Planning to Improvise

By David Sennema

As a barbershop quartet singer one of my favorite things to do is what barbershoppers call “woodshedding” a song. No printed music is used. The “lead” sings the melody, and the tenor, baritone and bass improvise in an effort to create four-part harmony.

Many years ago I played the trombone, and during my college days I jammed with a small ensemble. Jazz groups are known for improvisation and that’s what we were doing, although I must admit that it was at a very basic level.

And then there’s theater. One of the methods that drama teachers use in training actors is to give them a topic and have them improvise a scene.

So what does all this have to do with writing? I started writing short stories before having had any formal, or even informal, training. I just sat down at the computer with the grain of an idea and started typing. I was improvising and the computer keyboard was my instrument. I finished a few stories that way, but in the meantime I began to read about how one is supposed to write short stories.

“You must have a plan before you sit down at the computer,” I read. “I always write the ending first so I know where I’m going” some authors wrote. “It’s best to outline the entire story before proceeding,” others suggested.

Such pronouncements gradually wore me down, and I began to feel like an undisciplined clod, so I started following their advice. I made lists of characters that would appear in stories, noting some of their distinguishing features. Then I either made an outline or wrote a narrative summary of the entire story. And only then did I sit down and start writing.

I have been writing short stories for only about a year, and so I make no pretense of having any expertise whatsoever. I can only say that having tried two different approaches I prefer the “improv” method and I think I’ve had better results going that route. However, I am loathe to completely ignore the advice of proven authors, so as I move forward I will probably experiment, trying different combinations of the two approaches.

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